New Zealand Law Society - Mental Health Awareness Pot Pourri

Mental Health Awareness Pot Pourri

Mental Health Awareness Week is 21 to 27 September 2020. In the run-up to this week, Sarah Taylor, Katie Cowan and Sian Wingate share some thoughts, ideas, and challenges.

If you’re serious about lawyers’ mental health, start with making them work less

By Katie Cowan

It is Mental Health Awareness week. This is a good thing, generally. It certainly beats “Mental Health Unawareness Lifetime”. The problem is, awareness is just the first step, and the poor mental health endemic to legal practice will take ongoing shared action to address.

I get frustrated by individualist solutions to problems whose root causes are systemic. The actions of individuals certainly help, and they’re the bits we’re each in control of so it’s good to ask each other to do constructive things. However, if we’re really talking Mental Health Awareness, we should ensure we do not urge individual awareness without also changing the systems and environments in which mental illness regularly show up.

Let me focus on a single thing, so wired into the systems of the legal profession, that if it were different could have a huge impact on how widespread mental illness is here.

That thing is the hours lawyers work. Reducing them wouldn’t fix everything – no single intervention would – but it would do a lot of the heavy lifting that tinkering at the edges simply cannot do.

If you are an employer, and you expect your employees to work beyond the hours you pay them, you are compromising their mental health. Hell, even if you pay them overtime, if you want them working more than the 30-40 hours research has shown humans can do productive intellectual or creative work for, you are still compromising their mental health (it’s just less unjust).

If you do not prioritise your employees’ ability to rest, sleep, nurture healthy relationships, have fun, pause, exercise and give attention to things unrelated to work, you are making them less resilient. You’re not alone in doing this. Most legal employers do it. But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s right. This norm, on its own, comes at the expense of both your employees’ mental health and the overall resiliency of your office and industry, since people with fewer resources have less to share with others.

It’s not just an issue of an individual’s own mental health. Care for mental health is something individuals do for themselves, yes, but it’s also something that friends, family, colleagues, employers, industries, communities and societies cultivate in each other. We are all contributing to each others’ mental health in various ways at all times, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. This is part of being human, since humans are co-regulated by each other as much as they are individual actors themselves.

Caring for ourselves and each other takes mental and emotional slack. If we fill every moment with stress and commitments (even if we enjoy a lot of them) there is no room for unexpected things, for hard conversations, for noticing patterns. This is an issue of time – if you fill every second with things you are always playing catch up – but also of mental capacity; if all your days are long and hard, you have no reserves for kindness, grace, compassion, toward yourself or others.

And this flows on to the kinds of “awareness” we urge people to have in Mental Health Awareness Week. We urge people to reach out for help and to check in on each other. But those tasks take immense emotional energy and vulnerability on both sides. Emotional energy is scarce in times of high stress. If you live your whole life in high stress, you do not have room for friends or colleagues who are struggling, or to process your own issues. There is no slack in the system, and the system becomes fragile. Chronic high stress itself also causes poor mental health.

If you are a person in charge of employees, I urge you to make the mental health of your people a priority and stop letting them work or be electronically available beyond their salaried hours. It’s not simple. It is not a single conversation you have during one designated week of the year. And in the culture of law we have all accepted as normal it sounds radical. But it meets the scale of the problem, and if your interventions are systemic like this, you can start imagining a future where practising law no longer invites mental illness as a de facto professional hazard. If there’s any week to do that kind of imagining, it’s this one. ▪

Big ears, small mouth

By Sarah Taylor

I have a love/hate relationship with LinkedIn. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the quantity of material to read, other times I feel inferior when I see all the great things other people are doing. But sometimes I’ll see something that makes me think “yes!” I had a “yes” moment recently when I saw a post by clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire. Jacqui’s message was clear and simple:

"People want to feel heard, not fixed.

"Your greatest gift is a listening ear, not a solution."

This message resonated strongly for me. As lawyers, we’re inclined to want to fix things, to solve problems. We’ve been trained to do it, it’s often part of our jobs. I feel antsy if I can’t resolve a problem. But with someone else’s personal issues … finding a solution isn’t always the best approach.

When I’m feeling down, the friends I turn to are those who don’t try to fix me, who don’t make me feel more broken than I already feel. I turn to friends and loved ones who are good at listening. They let me cry, they don’t judge me, they’re there when I need them. They also understand if I’m not up to talking and need to hide in a dark cave for a while.

This is not to say that we can’t offer someone help or encourage them to get help or call on help if needed. But we don’t have to take responsibility for solving someone else’s problems – and actually, we can’t. This can be a really hard thing to grasp – particularly with a loved one who we desperately want to help. It’s so hard to see someone hurting and feel powerless to do anything about it. But by being there for them, listening, validating, regularly checking-in, we are helping.

For those who haven’t experienced it, mental illness and distress can be a very difficult thing to understand. And that’s okay. We don’t have to fully understand it – we just need to be understanding. There is no playbook for this, sometimes we have no idea what to do or say. And that’s okay too. Sometimes the less said the better, sometimes it can help to ask questions, sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. “Are you okay?” “I’m sorry you’re struggling” “How can I help?” “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.”

Over the last few years, I’ve thrown down a gauntlet each Mental Health Awareness Week. This year my challenge is for us to enhance our listening skills. Be empathetic, be non-judgemental. Have “big ears and a small mouth” as someone wise once said. ▪

How to use community to be fearless

By Sian Wingate

Community is one of my favourite words. Why? Because it delivers every time to keep me fearless in the face of anxiety and stress.

Let me explain.

Mental well-being is well-recognised as being the by-product of participating in a strong community. The World Health Organisation states that “mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

A few years ago, I discovered the power of community and how it can make you fearless when confronted by a mental health challenge.

Between 2015 and 2018 I was inside a toxic workplace environment. The toxicity was draining my energy and eroding my confidence that I was a good person. I started to retreat, to cancel the coffee dates, to avoid the social catchups over the weekend and just, well, hide. Head down and tail up. Get the work done and go home. That was the mantra.

It didn’t work.

I got sick. I developed anxiety and I got sicker. I also got boring – super duper dull-as-a-dishmop boring. No chat, no laughter, no funny quips as I regaled someone with a story. All the hallmarks of ‘me’ disappeared (I’m an extrovert in case you hadn’t picked this one up).

By 2017, I was so bored with myself I decided it was time to restore my crumbling confidence. I concluded I needed a new community. If those around me were draining me, I had to replace them with others who would buoy me up

In 2017 I joined the ILANZ committee and I created a new mountain biking group for my local girlfriends. I extended my community to include people who were not my ‘usual’ type.

It worked.

I quickly realised that I was drawing well-being wonders from contributing to these new communities I had joined.

With the mountain biking group, I would organise the rides, post photos of our wins on our messenger group and arrange weekends away.

With the ILANZ committee, I set up sessions for the annual conference, wrote articles and arranged local catch ups for my in-house peers.

It worked so well I became addicted to community.

By late 2017, I was becoming more fearless as my new community groups showed that they valued my contribution. My confidence was improving. My anxiety had less of a grip on me.

In 2018, the anxiety had gone, the toxic workplace ditched and I became ILANZ president. I stepped up the community contribution. I pulled together the committee to become connected and engaged. I designed member-to-member programmes to foster well-being among my in-house peers. I did all this to give out more than I took back.

Because giving back to your community gives you back your mental wellness. It works.

It’s 2020 and a strong community to be a member of and to contribute to is now something I actively seek out in every area of my life to keep me fearless.

Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Client Solutions at LOD, a law firm focused on the success and well-being of lawyers. If you’d like to contribute to this series, please contact Sarah

Katie Cowan is a former litigation lawyer who now works to improve how lawyers and law students experience the law. She works from Christchurch as a writer and speaker. You can find more of her work via The New Lawyer website.

Sian Wingate is a former senior in-house lawyer and was president of the In-House Lawyers Association (ILANZ) from 2018-2020. She now works for herself as a contracting coach and recently founded two online contract training schools at, Tradie Terms and, Terms Academy and has set up SO:LE, a Facebook community for sole counsel, contracting lawyers and those in sole charge of their legal teams.

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