It’s 3:27am. I’m wide awake. Again. Why am I worried about this? I’ve spoken at conferences before. Why is this one so different?
A few months ago, I spoke at the Lawyers in Government conference in Wellington. I’ve spoken at this conference before (about flexible working in the legal profession), but this year was different. This year I spoke about a topic that I had never publicly talked about before. In fact, it was a topic that I had never really talked about with anyone, even my closest friends.
I spoke about mental health – particularly depression and my experience with it.
I spoke alongside Gaynor Parkin, Victoria Hallum, and Nicholai Anderson and we addressed different aspects of mental health, both from a professional and personal perspective. The response to our session (and a subsequent session I spoke at) has been amazing – and humbling. It has shown that that there is clearly an appetite to kick the door down on conversations about mental health in our profession.
Mental health issues are so common in the legal profession, and yet there is still a lot of stigma, fear, and shame surrounding them. This article is the first in a series that aims to change this. My fellow contributors and I want to help destigmatise mental health issues and normalise conversations about them. We’ll be providing some practical guidance and tools to help create mentally healthy workplaces and support each other.
I’m going to kick off the series by sharing my story.
But first, some stats
According to the Mental Health Foundation, about one in five New Zealanders will experience a mental health issue this year. This could include depression, bipolar, or a range of anxiety disorders.
Unfortunately, there’s scant data about mental health issues in the New Zealand legal profession but it has been reported that lawyers have the highest rates of stress, anxiety, depression, addiction problems, and suicide than any other profession. It is thought that lawyers may have mental health issues at least two or three times the rate of the general population.
Given that there are about 12,880 New Zealand-based practising lawyers, this means approximately 5,000 – 7,000 (or more) of us receiving this issue of LawTalk could have some form of mental health issue this year. Many more of us have had (or will have) an issue at some point in our lives.
I was 16 when I first got depression. Life can be hard enough in your teenage years, let alone when you’re unwell. I also got hit with glandular fever, and soon after that was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. So I had a double-whammy of mental and physical health issues.
Both illnesses hit me hard – off and on – during my final years at school, right through university, and throughout my early years working as a lawyer. Depression messed with my head and my body. I had very little energy or motivation. Every day things were an effort. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed and the thought of having a shower could reduce me to tears because it was just too hard. I was exhausted, but I often had insomnia, and the tiredness just fed the depression.
Sometimes I felt like I had fallen in a deep dark hole. I knew there was light somewhere at the top of the hole, but I couldn’t always see it. I feared that I was never going to get out of the hole, that I was never going to get better.
But I always did. I always got better. And I had more good days than bad.
Some people think depression is about feeling sad, or low, or a bit blue. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it means you’re completely devoid of any feeling at all. You can see things that would normally bring you joy, but you feel nothing, you feel empty. You don’t feel like eating, you don’t feel like talking, you don’t feel like anything. You’re stripped of all emotion.
And actually, those days are harder than feeling sad.
I recognised pretty early on that something wasn’t right. I got help from my doctor and, over time, I got better.
But I felt very alone. I didn’t know anyone else who had depression. No one talked about it (John Kirwan hadn’t come out about his depression in those days). My parents and GP were supportive, but they hadn’t experienced it, and so they didn’t really get it.
I felt alone and I felt ashamed. I worried about what other people would think about me, that they’d judge me and think I was weak or lazy.
I now know that there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. I know that I’m not weak or lazy.
In fact, I know that I’m actually a lot stronger because of my experience. I’m more resilient, empathetic, positive, and I’m probably a lot more driven and motivated than I would have been without this experience.
Why am I sharing my story?
I want others to know they’re not alone.
So many of us have (or have had) depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. Yet there is still so much stigma, fear and shame surrounding them. We need to do more to destigmatise mental health issues and treat them no differently from physical health issues.
A lot of people have expressed surprise at my story. They’ve told me they had no idea and that I “didn’t seem like the sort of person who had depression”. And that’s a key point – anyone can have it. Depression doesn’t discriminate. Until we remove the stigma and make it okay to talk about, we don’t know who’s suffering.
My uncle Scott had depression. I didn’t know; he didn’t talk about it.
A few years ago he committed suicide.
I wish I’d known about his depression. I wish I could’ve helped him. Here are three things I wish Scott had known:
- You’re not alone.
- It’s not forever – you will get better.
- It’s worth getting help (and if the help you’re getting isn’t working, get more help).
Talking about health
Health issues, mental or physical, can be very difficult to talk about. Heck, I’ve spent most of the last three decades not talking about my depression or chronic fatigue. I haven’t deliberately kept them a secret, but I’ve never really been in an environment – particularly a work environment – where I’ve felt comfortable talking about them (and that’s despite having some of the most supportive managers and team members in the world).
I’m not suggesting that we all have to start being open with our feelings and sharing all our experiences. I’m suggesting that we help create environments where it is okay to talk about such issues – if people want or need to talk about them. I’m suggesting that if we become aware that if one of our colleagues is struggling, then we don’t turn a blind eye to it. We let them know that we’re there if they need help or want to talk about it.
But here’s the thing: don’t be surprised if someone doesn’t want to talk about it. For me, when I’m in a bad space, when I’m in that dark hole, it’s sometimes just too hard to reach out or talk about it. And when I’m not in the hole, I don’t really want to talk about it – I’d rather focus on feeling good and enjoying life.
The critical thing is that we provide safe and supportive environments so that if someone needs to talk about it, they can, without any fear of judgement.
I am not a trained expert in this area (future contributors will be), but my basic advice would be: if you think that someone may be struggling, there are some simple things you can do to help:
- Ask them: “Are you okay?” (which is a lot more effective than asking “how are you?”).
- Listen to them, really listen – without judgement. And observe them.
- Be there, provide support if they want it, suggest they get help if they need it.
- Keep an eye on them and follow-up – either in person or by phone/email. A quick text or call means a lot. They may not be up to responding but trust me, it means a lot to know that someone is thinking of you and that someone is there for you if you need them.
If you’re helping others, I think it’s also important to know that you don’t have to fully understand what they’re going through. If you’ve never experienced a mental health issue yourself, it can be a really difficult thing to understand. And that’s okay. You don’t need to fully understand it, you just need to be understanding.
You also don’t need to solve it. As lawyers, I think our natural inclination is to try to get to the bottom of things – to find answers and fix problems. But you don’t need to solve someone else’s issues for them – you just need to be there and help them to get help if they want or need it.
I’m very conscious that everyone’s issues and experiences are different and that there are a lot of different reasons why people may have mental health issues. There are a variety of things that can help and future articles will explore some of these. Different things have helped me at different points in my life, but what works for me may not work for someone else. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The key thing is not to give up. Keep trying new things.
Not brave, but normal
I don’t know if I still have depression or not. I certainly have low patches, and sometimes I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of that black hole. I suspect the black dog may always accompany me throughout life and I’m kind of okay with that. I’m not saying I’m happy to have it, but I’m now more accepting and recognise that it’s possibly part of who I am. If anyone judges me for it, then that’s their issue, not mine. I think the biggest judge I probably have to deal with is myself.
As lawyers, we often set such high standards for ourselves and beat ourselves up or feel guilty if we don’t meet our expectations or achieve what we think we should be achieving. So I’m learning to drop the self-judgement and be a bit kinder to myself.
Since sharing my story, a lot of people have told me how brave I am. I can’t say I feel particularly brave, but I’m certainly not as scared as I was when I first spoke about it.
It’ll be great when sharing such issues isn’t seen as brave – but normal – and no different from telling someone that you’ve got a physical ailment. We’ve still got quite a way to go, but the current climate feels right for change.
To wrap up
My key messages are:
- If you have mental health issues, you’re not alone.
- Mental health issues are not a sign of weakness. There is no shame in having issues or getting help.
- We need to do more to destigmatise mental health issues and normalise conversations about them.
- Wellbeing and positive mental health need to be a priority in our workplaces. We need to look after ourselves and each other.
Mental Health Awareness Week is 8–14 October. This year’s theme is: Mā te taiao kia whakapakari tōu oranga – Let nature in, strengthen your wellbeing. It’s a great opportunity to think about how you can strengthen your wellbeing and what steps you can take to help create supportive and mentally healthy workplaces.
Sarah Taylor is a senior lawyer with over 20 years’ experience in New Zealand and overseas. She is the Director - Business Development at lexvoco.
If you would like to contribute to a future article in this series or have a topic you would like covered, please contact Sarah: firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustrations © Matthew Johnstone From I Had a Black Dog, published by Pan Macmillan www.matthewjohnstone.com.au
Some useful resources:
- www.lawsociety.org. nz/practice-resources/practising-well
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline Aotearoa 0800 54 33 54 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text HELP (4357).
Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 82 88 65 (0508 TAUTOKO).
Samaritans 0800 726 666.