New Zealand Law Society - Talking about mental health: A conversation

Talking about mental health: A conversation

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Sarah Taylor
Sarah Taylor

Seth Witherspoon (not his real name) contacted me after reading my article in the October LawTalk (issue 922). He congratulated me for having the courage to share my story and indicated that he’d been through some pretty dark times. “Shining sunlight on this issue is very important,” he said. “Mental health is a significant issue across the legal profession and those of us with lived experience can help others by speaking up and de-stigmatising the issues.” Seth told me that he was aware from data he had obtained from the Office of the Chief Coroner that 17 lawyers had taken their own life in the 10-year period to August 2017 and that statistic deeply concerned him. He shared with me that he came close to being Number 18.

Seth and I met for coffee and he told me about his experience. It rocked me. I asked Seth if he’d be willing to share his story and he kindly agreed to me writing this article. We met again a few weeks later and talked, laughed, and cried (well, I did) on the balcony of the Wellington Club on a gloriously hot still Wellington day.

Sarah Taylor: Seth, can you please tell me a bit about what you went through a few years ago?

Seth: In 2011, I had several very challenging things happen to me, both at work and in my personal life. My previously stable, largely successful world suddenly fell apart. I hadn’t previously experienced mental unwellness, but was diagnosed with situational depression in mid-2012. I was in severe mental distress and struggled to function. I found it difficult to get out of bed for months – I describe it as having an emotional stroke. My friends and colleagues have previously judged me as a strong, resilient person but the confluence of difficulties I faced meant I collapsed, emotionally.

I lived on the 9th floor of an apartment complex and frequently thought about taking my own life. At my worst, I carried a rope around in my backpack and scoped out spots to use it. The thought of the damage my suicide would cause to my loved ones always (thankfully) pulled me back from the brink. It was very scary and I had to ‘stare down’ such thoughts on a daily basis for many months. No one really wants to take their own life, but you get in a space where you feel so bad that you just want to eliminate the pain.

Everyone, kindly, tells you it will get better, but at the time you are blinkered by mental distress and can’t see that from your ‘dark cave’. Of course, those people are right – it always gets better. In fact, it often leads to a better life than the life you had before, like it has for me.

ST: How did you get through it?

SW: I was fortunate. I had a great GP friend and he facilitated my medical care. During extreme periods of crisis and suicidality, I was under the care of the local DHB’s Crisis and Trauma team. I had a lot of non-medical support, most notably from a very committed group of four people. One member of that group, a lawyer friend, would either see, ring, text or email me every day. Every day for over four years! An extraordinary friend. My other pillars were my partner at the time and my daughter. They were unfailingly loving and supportive. I was also on a cocktail of anti-depressants overseen by my GP and a psychiatrist.

The real key to my returning to wellness was my four walls or pillars of human support. It was the people, not the pharmaceuticals that got me through my crises. I really encourage people suffering mental distress to speak up, reach out, and look within your own networks and families to help build a self-care programme. Building your own self-care programme can include reducing stressors, exercising, meditation and a stress and support team like I was lucky to have. Talking therapy was effective for me, as well as exercising and being in nature. l also learnt the benefits of mindfulness and enjoyed the support and love of my ‘whare walls’ and other close friends. My elderly and lovely late Mum used to say “just try a bit harder dear” and I would tell her that didn’t work – if it was a case of trying harder I would be back to wellness in a few minutes!

I was in and out of work for 3-4 years which was hard as I had always been a very busy and active member of the community and undertook a lot of pro bono work. I strongly believe that helping others helps your wellbeing and alleviates mental distress – it can help remove you (at least temporarily) out of your own painful paradigm. The ‘feel good’ factor of helping others can remove social isolation and be personally very healing.

ST: How are you now?

SW: I’m well now and my life is happily very different. I no longer suffer from depression and I’m no longer on medication, but I know it could re-visit if life throws up new severe emotional distress. That’s not something I relish and I indulge in self-care activities to build my resilience. They are my emotional “insurance policy”.

I think I am a better person because of what I went through. I have a different, more fulfilling life and look through a different, better lens than previously. I’m now a lot more empathetic of people suffering emotional distress.

I’ve always believed that out of a negative comes a positive. Re-setting my working and personal life due to my mental distress experience has led to many positives, including me meeting some amazing people working in mental health and who have got through depression, etc challenges. It has empowered me to do more fulfilling things which has been a huge positive. I want my life defined by my successes post my difficulties including service to others, rather than my period of depression and suicidality.

ST: What advice would you give to someone going through something similar as to what you went through?

SW: Put your hand up for help. Don’t suffer in silence. Be vulnerable – tell someone that you’re struggling – it’s part of journey out of mental distress. Not everyone you reveal your vulnerability to will know how to deal with it, so identify those within your network who may be able to help. Visit your GP and work with them and other close friends and family to build your own self-care programme and support team like I was lucky to have.

As lawyers, male lawyers in particular, it is generally counter to our culture to reveal your vulnerability. But doing so is incredibly empowering. There are some great websites with excellent resources in this space [see links at the end of this article].

ST: What advice would you give to someone who suspects or is aware that their friend or colleague is struggling?

SW: If you suspect someone is in mental distress and they’re not connecting, it’s not because they don’t like you, it’s because they’re unwell. They’re not their normal selves. Stay connected with them – go into their ‘cave’. I was lucky to have friends who came into my dark cave even though I was pushing people away. I didn’t want to see people, I felt ashamed. I was no longer a partner/ chairman of a law firm, I was no longer working, I felt isolated and didn’t want to be seen in public, play golf, or even walk down Lambton Quay. My truly committed friends with a deeper empathy and understanding of mental health stayed closely connected with me however.

If someone says they’re ok but your intuition is that they’re not, don’t ignore it. Listen to your intuition. Dig deeper. Reach out to them. Suggest to them “Let’s go for a coffee,” “Let’s go for a walk,” “Let’s talk because I sense you’re not ok.”

Be brave and have a deeper conversation with them. I use the ‘1 to 10’ technique to drill down with people about how they’re really feeling. I ask them “How are you feeling on a scale of 1 to 10?” If they give a low score and I am worried about their mindset I am very direct: “Are you feeling safe? Are you suicidal?” and then ask them to respond on the 1 to 10 scale. If they self-report low scores I take immediate steps to connect them to help.

And if, for whatever reason, you’re not comfortable having that deeper conversation, then go and find someone who can. For example, if you’re a junior lawyer and you sense a senior partner is struggling but you don’t feel comfortable having that conversation, then go and find someone else, maybe a peer of that person, who can have that conversation.

We all lead busy lives and it is easy to ignore the signals. But don’t ignore the signals. Alcohol and other addictive behaviours are often strong indicators of mental health issues so be alert to that as well.

ST: What are your thoughts about the current mental health system in New Zealand?

Man standing bleak

SW: It is a broken system that is under-resourced and over-medicalised. There is an over-dependence on prescription medicine. Don’t get me wrong, chemicals have their place, but they are only one spoke of the wheel. There is too much weight put on them as opposed to other things that can help. We need to be exposed to the full menu, to all the things that can help. For some people, physical activity can help, for others, it is talking therapy, mediation, yoga, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or counselling – we need to work out what is right for each person and provide a bespoke solution. We need to de-stress our lives in general and to de-compress. Life, business, and practising law have all become far too complex and stressful. There is, in my view, a severe case of “Affluenza” affecting a significant portion of the profession. I think law firm leaders should be prepared to reduce focus on bigger fee budgets and greater profits. Less can be more when it comes to life balance and life quality. Debilitating stress is, in my view, at the heart of most mental distress and illness.

I think, throughout our lives, we all move on a spectrum of mental wellbeing. Most people are lucky enough not to face severe life challenges that tip them over to debilitating mental health issues such as severe anxiety, depression or worse. Those of us that do, need to seek help and be brave in taking positive steps to do that. Individuals, the legal community and society in general need to be more proactive and receptive in supporting those that do.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 14 months researching the mental health system so that I could better understand it. I wanted to reach my own views about where change might be needed and what that change might look like.

ST: What do you think some of the key changes could be?

SW: I made a submission to the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction and as part of my submission I outlined several key areas where I think changes could be made. In a nutshell, some of these are:

  • Wellbeing Manifesto: I think the approach and recommendations outlined in the Wellbeing Manifesto promulgated by Mary O’Hagan should be adopted. We need a less medicalised-approach and client co-designed and community-led solutions.
  • A targeted/sector-based approach: I advocated for increased and targeted funding of sector/community wellbeing, addiction, mental distress, and suicide prevention strategies. By all means, have a generalised overarching strategy, but use co-design to develop specific solution-focused strategies for each sector/community.
  • A more integrated approach: We need to foster greater connectedness and integration across the mental health system at all levels. There currently appears to be a lot of silos and a lack of overall integration.
  • Wellbeing, mental health, and suicide: We need to reduce our shameful record of suicide in New Zealand. Why can’t we lead the world in having the lowest rate of suicide? If we can win Rugby World Cups, Americas Cups, and launch space rockets and satellites from New Zealand, why can’t we be number one in wellbeing and mental health? Why not make that our collective vision and a key goal for us as a nation?

[Note: At the time of finalising this article, the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry had just released its report. Seth told me that he is pleased with many aspects of the report, notably its recommendation to establish a Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission but feels that some of the recommendations are not “gamechanging” enough. We hope to explore the Inquiry’s recommendations in a future article in this series.]

ST: And what about in the legal profession – what more could be done to help and support lawyers and prioritise our mental health and wellbeing?

SW: We need to change the culture of the profession and create supportive and mentally healthy work environments where it’s ok to be vulnerable.

At least 17 lawyers took their own lives in the 10 years to August 2017. That’s 17 too many and I would like to see an independent organisation leading research, providing support resources, and being a ‘go to’ organisation for lawyers when they are suffering mental distress. It could be modelled on Farmstrong — the nationwide mental health and wellbeing programme for farmers. It needs to be independent from NZLS in my view so that lawyers feel free to self-report their mental distress with strict confidentiality and no fear of stigmatisation or regulatory consequences.

Firms need to understand that it is not all about meeting fee budgets. We need to remember why we went in to this profession. Most of us did not become lawyers for the purpose of making money. We went into the profession because we wanted to make a difference, to help people. But somehow, over the years, we (and society in general) got a bit lost along the way.

I don’t want to say the legal profession is toxic and terrible, because it’s not. The vast majority of lawyers are hardworking people of integrity who are motivated to protect the rule of law and benefit communities. However, the profession needs to recalibrate. Law firms and their leaders need to re-set their goals, just as the NZ Treasury is resetting our goals as a country. The Treasury is looking beyond economic goals and considering the wellbeing of the nation and measuring happiness levels. I suggest that law firms need to do the same. It is time for a values re-set that is deep and fundamental. And the threads of those new values need to permeate every aspect of the law firm including the way people develop and progress. It’s got to be more than just talk – if a firm values and espouses collegiality, it needs to consistently show such collegiality.

ST: What else can be done to help lawyers from getting in the state that you were in?

SW: We need to destigmatise mental health issues and make it ok to talk about mental health and reveal if you’re not coping. We need sessions within our organisations where we openly talk about what we can do to improve and maintain our mental health. We need to have self-care plans, like we have professional development plans. We need to ‘de-compress’ more and take the pressure off ourselves. Severe anxiety, depression, etc are alarm signals of deeper (often structural) issues that need addressing in your life. We need to be real and honest with ourselves to resolve them – and sometimes you need third party help to do that. A solution focused, step-by-step approach can often help. We need a more holistic approach to how we run our law firms and organisations. And these things need to be more than words – they’ve got to be part of the DNA of a firm, values that are lived and breathed.

Seth and I had a lot more to talk about and I hope to explore some of these issues in more detail in future articles. I want to deeply thank Seth for his honesty, openness, and willingness to be vulnerable. Kia kaha, arohanui Seth.

Me mahi tahi tatou mo te oranga o te katoa.

We need to work together for the wellbeing of all

Sarah Taylor is a senior lawyer, the Director of Business Development at lexvoco, and a mental health advocate.

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

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

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