Survive or thrive—promoting mental health across the legal profession

10 Oct 2017 | 8 min read

Today is World Mental Health Day and the focus is on mental health at work. Earlier this year, for Mental Health Awareness Week ( which ran from 8–14 May), we explored the difference between ‘surviving or thriving’. Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, says there is still significant stigma about mental health in the legal profession which stops people seeking help.

Can you explain LawCare’s background, who you provide support to and what services you offer?

Founded 20 years ago, LawCare is the charity that supports and promotes good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community throughout the UK and Ireland.

We understand life in the law and have helped thousands of legal professionals cope with a range of personal and professional concerns. Our key support service is our free, confidential and independent helpline. Calls are answered by trained staff and volunteers, who listen and provide emotional support with anything that may be of concern to the caller.

We run a peer support programme and can put callers in touch with someone who has experienced a similar problem. We also provide information tailored for the legal community—there is a wealth of resources such as factsheets and case studies available on our website.

We are here to help all branches of the legal profession: solicitors, barristers, barrister’s clerks, judges, legal executives, paralegals, trade mark attorneys, patent agents, costs lawyers and their staff and families. Our support spans the legal life from student to training to practice and retirement.

What are the key issues that people contact you about and have these changed over the last five years?

Stress and depression remain the top two issues that people call us about, and this has not changed over the past five years. Last year we saw a rise of 12% in the number of calls, compared to 2015. One of the changes we have seen is in the rise in calls about bullying, and we have also seen a rise in the number of calls about career development.

But we believe this is just the tip of the iceberg. It may be that people see the helpline as a crisis line or the Samaritans but we want people to come to us earlier before their lives are spiralling out of control.

Are you seeing a change in the age, background, gender or professional background of those contacting you?

Not really, but we have seen a rise in the number of men calling, up from 35% in 2015 to 38% and an increase in calls from junior members of the legal community.

The Mental Health Foundation stresses that ‘good mental health is more than the absence of a mental health problem’. How important are campaigns like MHAW, which the foundation has run since 2000?

It is an extremely important way to raise awareness and help de-stigmatise mental health issues. We will be highlighting our work in promoting and supporting good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community as we focus on the distinction between surviving and thriving.

Is the issue of mental health being addressed effectively in the legal profession?

Although there is growing awareness about mental health in the legal community, there is still much to be done. Many lawyers don’t recognise the signs of mental health problems in either themselves or others, and don’t know where to turn for help. There is also significant stigma, which means people don’t come forward for fear of compromising their careers or being seen as weak. As a community, we need to work together to raise awareness and tackle stigma: the more we talk openly about mental health, the better able we will be to break down the barriers to accessing support.

There is growing engagement from the professional bodies, regulators and legal educators with mental health, and these organisations are beginning to develop resources and awareness campaigns. The Bar Council has launched a dedicated website, Wellbeing at the Bar, and the Law Society is actively promoting MHAW.

Last year, the profession came together to set up the Legal Professions Taskforce with the aim of sharing best practice, raising awareness and tackling stigma. It is spearheaded by the Law Society and driven by LawCare. We are planning a social media campaign during MHAW to raise awareness of what each organisation is doing in the mental health arena.

Individually, firms and chambers are also beginning to raise awareness about mental health issues and about the support available both within their organisations and externally. Last year several large firms participated in the Lord Mayor’s ‘This is Me’ campaign, which provides a platform for employees who have experienced mental health problems to share their stories with others.

What more would you like to see law firms, chambers and in-house legal teams do to ensure their lawyers feel able to seek help?

We would like to see every legal practice implement a mental health and wellbeing policy, and communicate with their staff/colleagues about it. We would encourage every legal practice to get involved with MHAW by organising an activity or even sending an email to staff to let them know it’s MHAW and signposting to organisations that can help, including LawCare.

According to a recent survey, one in four junior lawyers said they experienced ‘severe’ stress levels at work. More than 90% said they experienced some stress, with more than a third saying they had made mistakes because of overwork. Should there be more training for managers and supervisors?

Yes. We believe that anyone with responsibility for HR or managing staff should have training in how to respond to a colleague who may be experiencing a mental health problem. Organisations need to foster a culture that enables anyone worried about their mental health and wellbeing to talk about it at work.

What should be done to help students and trainees who may feel very vulnerable?

We know students and trainees are a particularly vulnerable group. Students can feel daunted by intensive study, exams and the pressure of securing a position, while newly qualified lawyers can be apprehensive about the transition into practice and taking on more responsibility.

Mental health, and why it matters, together with practical advice on how to look after ourselves, should be a formal part of legal education both at law school and in training. We need to educate those coming into the profession that law is a rewarding and stimulating career, but there may be times when they may feel stressed or anxious, and that’s okay as many lawyers will have had a similar experience. The important message is to seek help before problems escalate. Students and trainees could be signposted to the range of pastoral and practical support offered by law schools, professional bodies, firms/chambers, special interest groups and LawCare.

The young royals have been talking about their issues around mental health. How important is that people in the legal profession share their experiences?

Sharing the lived experience is one of the most powerful tools we have in tackling stigma. It’s very important that people in the legal community are supported to share their experiences of mental health problems. It does take courage to speak up publicly and some lawyers are beginning to do so. People with mental health problems can feel alone and isolated, so knowing that someone else has had a similar experience can provide reassurance and pave the way for opening up to others and seeking help. We know from feedback that the personal stories on our website have really helped.

What message do you want to get out to lawyers and those they work with about mental health and wellbeing?

Mental health and wellbeing matter, and they need to be everyone’s business. One in four of us will experience a mental health concern at some time in our lives, and lawyers are no exception. We want everyone in the legal community to know how to look after their mental health and wellbeing, recognise the signs when things are not right, know where to find help and not be afraid to ask for it.

What are the best resources for lawyers seeking help?

Some helpful resources for lawyers include:

  1. LawCare helpline 0800 279 6888
  2. LawCare partnerships
  3. The Bar Council—‘Wellbeing at the Bar’

 

Interviewed by Grania Langdon-Down. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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