New Zealand Law Society - Talking about mental health

Talking about mental health

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In the October issue of LawTalk we began a series of articles focusing on mental health issues in the legal profession. Sarah Taylor led with a personal story about some of her experiences and this month registered clinical psychologists, Gaynor Parkin and Dr Allanah Casey, write about mental health, wellbeing, and competence in the legal profession.

Gaynor Parkin
Gaynor Parkin

The first study investigating wellbeing specifically in the legal field was published in 1957. Just over 60 years later we continue to see higher than average rates of mental health difficulties among legal professionals – notably problematic alcohol use (between 21 and 36%), depression (28%), and anxiety (19%). These higher rates of psychological distress begin as early as law school, and are most notable for lawyers in the first 10 years of their career, and those in private sector firms. Aside from mental illness, data also shows that a significant proportion of lawyers are highly stressed, and have lower levels of life and work satisfaction.

Not only do these high rates of mental distress mean that lawyers are suffering more than their counterparts in other professions, but they have the potential to significantly impact on lawyers’ competence and performance. The impact of these challenges on performance is so significant that the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing (established by the American Bar Association) goes so far as to call maintaining wellbeing “part of a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence”.

Stress significantly affects brain function

What we know clearly from psychological research is that stress significantly affects the functioning of our brains, driving our brains to perform more from emotion centres (predominantly the amygdala) and less from the rational decision-making centres (our ‘executive functioning’ located in the prefrontal cortex). As a result of stress and psychological distress, we are less able to think clearly, approach situations rationally, connect thoughts and ideas effectively, and remember and integrate information well. It’s not hard to imagine how these changes in brain functioning begin to negatively impact the performance and efficiency of lawyers.

How do we turn the tide on these negative statistics? Below are three important, and often neglected, areas we can impact immediately.

Physical Health

Allanah Casey
Dr Allanah Casey

Not only do the deficits in wellbeing noted above effect our mental health and performance, they also impact upon our physical health, with rates of stress-related physical illness such as heart disease also higher in the legal profession. One of the crucial mechanisms by which stress negatively impacts our physical health is through an oversupply of cortisol. You’ve probably heard of cortisol as a stress hormone, and the problem is that our bodies are not well equipped to manage the high levels of cortisol that accompany chronic stress. This oversupply of cortisol lowers our immune system, raises blood pressure, increases storage of abdominal fat, and reduces cognitive performance.

To limit these harmful effects, it’s essential to manage our stress effectively.

What can you do now?

  • Take time out. Oscillating between periods of high performance and taking time to recover is critical for maintaining performance and preventing chronic stress. Taking a break away from your desk, stopping for a non-work related chat with a colleague, or spending your commute listening to some music or a podcast are just a few ways you can give your brain an opportunity to unplug, and therefore reset before you face the next challenge.
  • Prioritise exercise. Whether it’s heading out for a lunchtime stroll, cycling to work, or hitting the gym, embedding some movement into your everyday life makes a big difference. In terms of our health, Frank Hu, Associate Professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, states that “the single thing that comes close to a magic bullet, in terms of its strong and universal benefits, is exercise.” This statement holds true for both our physical and mental health.

Digital Health

Digital technology forms an important part of how lawyers work, but like in other professions the call of modern technology to always be plugged in and available has costs for our wellbeing. Checking emails from home? Taking calls on days off? Leaving court to a stack of emails? All of these pressures can ramp up our stress levels, and make it more difficult to take the recovery breaks we need to ensure our brains keep functioning well.

A man meditating on a couch with a black dog looking in the window
Image: Matthew Johnstone

What can you do now?

  • Plan a tech-free evening, day off or an entire weekend. Or really push your limits and take a holiday, leaving your work phone and other devices behind. Create a ‘point person’ for any urgent matters to allow you to take this break.
  • Take time to connect without interruption. Going on a date night with your partner, or sitting down to a family meal are great times to leave your devices off. Your relationships will thank you for it.
  • For best sleep quality, avoid devices for at least one hour before bed. Turn off screens, have a shower, read a book (ideally on paper), practise some relaxation exercises – whatever tech-free routine works well for you.
  • Set up screen-free zones, for example, your bedroom. Don’t watch TV in bed, and leave your laptop, smartphone, and tablet in a different room when you go to bed to prevent the urge to check messages late at night or first thing in the morning, and avoid disruptions to your sleep.

What can your team do in the office?

  • Experiment with periods of time in the day when you go offline – perhaps for an hour or two in the morning when you focus on tasks that require your full attention. You could alternate times within the team to make sure someone is always available for anything urgent.
  • Simplify technology use while doing complex work tasks – especially tasks requiring learning, concentration, or creativity. Put your phone away in a drawer or bag, or close background web pages.
  • Turn off email and message alerts and set up an automatic reply letting the message sender know you will get back to them within a certain timeframe.
  • Set up screen-free zones in the office, especially in areas where discussion and collaboration are a focus.
  • Run screen-free meetings.

Support one another

One factor that has contributed to reduced wellbeing in the legal profession is a culture of not discussing mental health difficulties. The National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing describes this culture, stating “many in the legal profession have behaved, at best, as if their colleagues’ well-being is none of their business. At worst, some appear to believe that supporting well-being will harm professional success.” We know clearly from the research that the sentiment expressed in that second statement is untrue, with greater wellbeing associated with improved individual and organisational productivity.

What can you do now?

A black dog chasing a man running
Image: Matthew Johnstone
  • Seek support when you’re struggling. Discuss what’s going on with a trusted colleague, friend, or family member. You could also try your organisation’s Employee Assistance Programme or your GP if you want an outside opinion.
  • Talk about wellbeing. The most powerful way to change the culture of silence is to begin discussing the elephant in the room, making these conversations commonplace and destigmatising the topic. If you are in a senior or leadership position, your comments are likely to be even more powerful, setting a model for others to follow.
  • Establish professional supervision relationships. These relationships can provide an opportunity to regularly (eg, monthly) review professional performance, and any related personal challenges. For all of us there will be times when our personal life impacts our work, for example if you have experienced a recent loss or if a particular case ‘pushes your buttons’. Discussing these issues and formulating a plan for managing them with someone else helps to prevent blind spots and negative impacts on our work. The establishment of this type of relationship also reduces barriers to accessing support when issues arise. Think about how this might work best for you and your team members – supervision could be with a peer or senior colleague, within or outside of your organisation.

Each of us has an important role to play in supporting our personal wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those around us. Small steps taken consistently build into big changes. Let’s not wait another 60 years to change these statistics.

Further reading

The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, Krill, Johnson, & Albert, 2016

Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns, Organ, Jaffe, & Bender, 2016

Employee Positive Emotion and Favorable Outcomes at the Workplace, Staw, Sutton and Pelled, 1994

Some useful resources:

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.


Report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing (2017). The path to lawyer wellbeing: Practical recommendations for positive change.

Gaynor Parkin and Dr Allanah Casey are registered clinical psychologists at Umbrella, an organisation focused on providing specialist wellbeing and mental health training and support.

If you would like to contribute to a future article in this series or have a topic you would like covered, please contact Sarah Taylor:

Illustrations © Matthew Johnstone From I Had a Black Dog, published by Pan Macmillan

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