It's Okay Not to Be Okay


It's Okay Not to Be Okay

Lawyers are experiencing mental illness at unsettling levels, and yet many of us are reluctant to seek help. According to the National Study on Wellness in the Legal Profession, 46.8% of legal professionals surveyed felt the need to seek professional help for mental health problems but did not.

The study documented several barriers to seeking help.

  • 55.8% of participants told themselves their symptoms were temporary and would pass;
  • 37.6% didn’t have the energy to engage in such a process;
  • 26.3% lacked the time;
  • 13.6% were ashamed to seek help and
  • 9.2% were afraid that people around them would find out.
  • The study’s findings mirror my own experience.

In my last BarTalk column, I wrote that I’d been dealing with some degree of undiagnosed depression since my university days, and that my mental health deteriorated during my articles. For months I had considered contacting Derek LaCroix, KC at the Lawyers Assistance Program, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

There were several reasons why I was so reluctant to seek help. I grew up in a cultural environment where feelings were rarely discussed. I viewed my mental illness as weakness — something that could be overcome if I just worked harder. I felt like I was too busy with work to take the time to seek treatment. Being a closeted 2SLGBTQ+ person also made things more complicated, as I had become extremely private and was unwilling to talk to anyone about my personal life. My greatest fear, however, was that my career would be negatively impacted if people knew what I was dealing with.

And so, like many other lawyers experiencing mental illness, I suffered in silence.

Fortunately, I did eventually contact Derek. I’m not sure what the exact catalyst was, but I remember realizing and accepting that the problem had become too big for me to solve on my own and without help it was only going to get worse. It took many difficult steps to get to that point. However, the next step — following the advice of professionals to take a medical leave — was by far the most challenging. It was the hardest decision of my life, as I thought it would end my legal career.

Fast forward to today. The hardest decision of my life ended up being the best decision of my life. My leave lasted 3.5 months. It gave me the time and space to focus 100% of my energy on getting well. I’ll write more about what I did during my leave and after in a future column, but suffice it to say, taking a leave was the most critically important step in my journey to wellness.

We need to talk about these things. Don’t get me wrong — we’ve come a long way in raising awareness of mental illness and reducing stigma. When I was going to law school and articling, there was almost no discussion about mental illness. That’s not the case today. Nevertheless, we must grow this discussion. Lawyers, particularly early career lawyers, need to hear from senior lawyers who have experienced mental illness. They need to know it’s okay not to be okay; that experiencing mental illness does not mean they are not cut out for this profession. And they need to know that they are not alone.

Sharing experiences is important. It helps us relate to one another and gives us all permission to be vulnerable. But we cannot stop there. We must also take action. CBABC has created a Mental Wellness Task Force. This committee will review recommendations made by the national study, engage with members of the profession, and identify what CBABC should introduce to support and advocate for members’ mental health. As co-chair of this committee, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.