Mental Health and the Law

Schizophrenia Awareness Week 19-26 May 2019

On Mental Health and the Law

In an article on mental health and the law, you could be forgiven for thinking I am going to write about the legal challenges faced by people with mental illness. These challenges are indeed important. But today I would like to turn the torch around. I would like to look at the mental health of lawyers. More broadly I would like to talk about the mental health challenges of students of law, and the legal profession.

I must admit, at this point, that I am writing from anecdotal evidence. True, a recent survey in the Journal of Judicial Administration found that rates of “moderate to high” levels of psychological distress were significantly higher amongst the judiciary; perhaps due to the vicarious trauma of cases they were hearing. A study by the Bar is also mentioned below. But there is not a great deal of research into the mental health of the legal profession. The rest of the blog comes from what I have gleaned about the topic from friends, family and colleagues.

It starts with studying the law (a privilege I had from 1999 to 2004). In many universities, in particular those with established and respected law faculties, competition for entry is fierce. Initial entry can be restricted to a portion of the best of the best of UAI recipients. Entrants tend to be competitive. The pressure to understand and master areas of law that are quite enormous, in limited time, can lead to further difficulty. This can stress out many students. It seems, from anecdotal evidence, that a significant number of students develop affective disorders such as anxiety or depression.

There also appears to be a culture of self-control, ambition and mastery in the law, and this begins with studying. According to this culture, this code, it is shaming or stigmatising to admit one in struggling. Mental distress is suffered silently.

This unspoken code is maintained in the legal profession, with similar results.

In particular, one must look to the enormous workloads placed upon young entrants into the big law firms. Many are expected to work 50-to-60 hours a week (or more); working late into the night or weekends. The suggestion that one is struggling is shaming. I know many people who could not face this stress and had to choose career change or less prestigious legal work. Yet even working at smaller firms can be stressful too.

Similar concerns may exist for barristers. In the Bar’s 2015 wellbeing survey, 1 in 3 respondents found it difficult to stop and control worrying. 59% stated being very self-critical most of the time. The Barrister has reported that:
“Barristers talked about the enormous pressure of working in the Mags, including the increasing financial pressures caused by cuts to legal aid, the lack of time to prepare, and huge workload; none of which is received sympathetically by the court. Junior barristers, learning on the job, felt particularly pressured.”

This can lead to distress or burnout.

The workload placed on judges can also lead to high stress. Many are required to hear cases that are very distressing, involving substance abuse, family breakdown, violence, sexual assault or even murder. They must master the art of controlling a court-room and ensuring the highest of legal standards. They are asked to be impartial, even in the most difficult of cases; all with the sobriety one expects of a judge. Judges are not infallible, and the challenges they face can leave them reeling internally.

What needs to happen to change this occurrence of mental illness?

There needs to be a change in the unspoken code. The stigma of mental distress must end, starting with students, and extending throughout the entire legal system. It must be recognised that legal work is difficult, and that the pressure put on recent graduates, particularly in big firms, can be too high. It must be recognised that barristers often work under very tight deadlines and demands. And judges must be allowed to express the personal cost of the work they do. Only then can we proceed towards a mentally healthy legal system.
 

Dr. Richard Schweizer, Policy Officer at One Door Mental Health richard.schweizer@onedoor.org.au.  

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Dr Richard Schweizer

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