Building understanding and reducing stigma
A BarTalk issue on Health Law provides a great opportunity to consider lawyer’s mental health.
Law can be a demanding profession, as we strive to assist our clients to deal with important and stressful situations. Law tends to attract those who want to be high achievers. Yet lawyers are not superhuman – research indicates that the rates of depression, anxiety and stress among lawyers are generally significantly higher than within the general population; it suggests that anxiety disorders affect 20% to 30% of lawyers as compared to only 4% of the general population. And unhealthy coping strategies often lead to alcohol and substance abuse problems.
The profession as a whole has been giving steadily increasing attention to these issues in recent years – with good reason. As noted by the recent US National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being: “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being.”
The CBA has developed a number of resources over the years to assist lawyers in learning about and dealing with mental health issues, including an online learning program aimed at helping legal professionals to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health and addiction issues. The CBABC also has a number of resources available on its website.
One of the biggest challenges in dealing with mental health issues in the legal profession is concerns about the stigma that may be attached to such issues. The CBA has been graced with some important leaders – including former national President Michele Hollins, QC (now Hollins J) and former Ontario Bar Association President Orlando da Silva, both of whom have spoken openly about their experiences with mental health challenges. Those of us who attended the CBA West conference this past November heard an inspirational address by Hollins J with respect to her experiences, and will undoubtedly look at mental health issues in future through a different lens. Seeing excellent lawyers (and judges) who have struggled with mental health issues, obtained professional help, and gone on to even greater success in the profession is a great step toward destigmatizing mental illness in the legal community.
Our Law Society has recently taken two important steps. Seeking to take a proactive approach to support and assist lawyers to meet standards of professionalism and competence, the new Law Society strategic plan includes provisions to improve the mental health of the legal profession by identifying ways to reduce the stigma of mental health issues. As well, at their December 2017 meeting, the Benchers approved changes to the Continuing Professional Development Program that will recognize professional wellness as a subject matter eligible for CPD credit. This will include educational programs designed to help lawyers detect, prevent or respond to substance use problems, mental health or stress-related issues that can affect professional competence and the ability to fulfill a lawyer’s ethical and professional duties.
As I write this article, the CBA’s online learning program on mental health contains accreditation information on the start page, noting that “This program is accredited in all Canadian jurisdictions except British Columbia.” Hopefully, before we are too far into 2018, this and other educational programs on important mental health issues will confirm accreditation in BC.1
The CBABC looks forward to working with the Law Society and other legal stakeholder groups to develop better understanding among the profession of the importance of lawyer well-being, particularly when it comes to mental health, to ensuring that lawyers are aware of and able to access the necessary supports, and to reducing stigmatizing behaviours, attitudes and effects.
1. The Mental Health and Wellness in the Legal Profession course is now accredited in BC. | ↩