R U Okay? Day

In the lead up to ‘R U Okay? Day’ let’s start a conversation about mental health amongst law students.

Mental Health. It is a topic that is gaining traction on social media, and in society generally. It seems that we are more comfortable with talking about our mental health than we used to be. I myself am not so sure. We 'talk' about 'mental health issues', but do we really? Is expressing ourselves in sarcastic memes about mental breakdowns really a healthy way of discussing our mental health? (I, for one, am guilty of this).

The 2009 study; 'Courting the Blues: attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and legal practitioners', reveals troubling statistics on mental health in the legal profession and amongst law students. According to the report, 46.9% of law students, 55.7% of solicitors and 52.5% of barristers reported that they had experienced depression.

Just let that sink in for a minute. Almost half of law students, and more than half of solicitors and barristers report that they have experienced depression.

The statistics speak for themselves:

-       21.9% of law students reported high levels of distress (compared to 10.2% in the general population) and 13.3% reported levels of very high distress (compared to 3.1% in the general population)

-       22.3% of solicitors reported high levels of distress (compared to 9.2% in the general population) and 8.7% reported levels of very high distress (compared to 3.8% in the general population)

-       12.5% of barristers reported high levels of distress (compared to 9.2% in the general population) and 4.2% reported levels of very high distress (compared to 3.8% in the general population)

So, why is it that the rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are so prevalent in the legal profession, and amongst law students? It begins a sort of 'chicken and egg' argument; do people who choose to study law already have a predisposition to anxiety and depression, or it it the study of the law itself that creates the problem?

Studies would seem to show that it is a combination. It seems that there are two personality traits in particular that we, as law students, possess that can be to our detriment: perfectionism and pessimism. This combined with the heavy workload and stress of studying a law degree - lead to higher rates of mental illness. 

'Yet law students are known to enter law school with rates of wellbeing no different to, and even higher than, the general population: apparently, legal education at both graduate and undergraduate levels has a negative impact on student wellbeing, and that impact becomes evident within the first six to 12 months of the degree.'[1]

One of my (and many other law students) idols in law, The Hon Michael Kirby, spoke about the issue of mental health amongst the legal profession in an address for the launch of the Daniel Solomons Memorial Scholarship at Ashurt's Sydney office, and I will let the eloquent words of one of my favourite legal minds do the talking....

Those who suffer the indescribable pain [of depression].... are rendered extremely vulnerable if their career choice has taken them into the law. The law is usually a very public vocation. Its top practitioners are on display most of the time. They face fierce competition. They are often perfectionists, overachievers, trapped in ‘pin striped prisons’. We now know that law places special and excessive pressures on students and practitioners. Working in symbiosis with clinical depression, this can trigger suicidal thoughts and actions. As wise commentators have observed, because lawyers generally sell their talent in modules of time, there is always pressure on them to sell more and more time, until there is no time left for the other priorities of life. 

There is some evidence that pressures of this kind are heaviest in large legal firms, where it is harder to maintain a life/work balance. Although many firms today (and some law schools, even Bar and judicial institutions) have attempted remedial measures to show that they care about the challenge of depression and the risks (including suicide) that it brings, commentators repeatedly observe that the lawyers most at risk commonly do not believe that these efforts are real or intended to be taken seriously: 

[P]rivate practice lawyers are often subject to tight, client-driven deadlines and exacting internal performance targets – the competitive and confrontational nature of legal practice leaves many believing that such wellbeing policies are not worth the paper they are written on. ‘A few months ago, my firm distributed helpful tips printed on colourful postcards suggesting we ought to “Go for a swim in the ocean” or “Go home and cook a meal with your family”,’ wrote one lawyer, anonymously ... in 2013. ‘Apparently the irony of recommending such fun and whimsy to a group of employees who are effectively required to remain at the office upwards of 14 hours a day for months on end was lost on the hopeful folks in human resources.’ Under such conditions, and with the profession’s poor track record in looking after its own, ... cynicism is well placed.

Certainly, there now seems to be a growing realisation of the existence of a kind of crisis in legal employment as a student and career choice. In a recent poll asking ‘is life as a lawyer what you thought it would be when you were a student?’, more than 37 per cent of respondent lawyers said ‘No, I wish I was working in a different career’. Only 11 per cent of the 444 respondents to the survey said their law career had fulfilled all their expectations.

Plainly, we have a problem here. Estimates suggest that one in three lawyers, from law school to final retirement, suffers at some stage from depression and low self-esteem. A number will face serious suicidal imaginings. If one googles lawyers’ suicides and inserts the name of the city or town, names will come up that one knew but sometimes one had forgotten. Tristan Jepson was such a name. His parents established the Foundation in his name to tackle the issue. Daniel Solomons was another young lawyer who fell victim to suicidal depression. Most of his colleagues did not know, could not understand and could not believe that such a talented and handsome, much admired person would suffer from such a condition at the end of his life. Or respond as he did. But that is the fact. Lawyers have to face the facts.[2]

I realise that I may have let my pessimism get the better of me with this post. However, I agree that lawyers (and law students) do need to face the facts. If we are to tackle the issue of mental health amongst our profession, and in our law school, we first need to acknowledge the problem.

As Michael Kirby flagged in his speech - band-aid solutions - such as in the example given of telling lawyers to “go for a swim in the ocean” or “go home and cook with your family” - can feel at best a half hearted and at worst a self serving attempt by law firms to pay lip service to mental health issues amongst the profession. The same can be said of “solutions” provided by universities. It is true that change has happened - since I began my law degree in 2012 UQ has moved away from 100% assessment pieces - in an effort to decrease the pressure on students. However, the culture has a long way to go. Some might say that giving students closed book 70% exams - and then throwing puppies and pancakes their way - might not be the most effective strategy… Change can happen from within - we can be more supportive of each other and consciously tackle our pessimism and perfectionist tendencies. Clearly there is a need for change both from the universities around Australia - as well as amongst us as students.

We need to move beyond talking about mental health in an offhand and flippant way. (Although I won’t lie I still see memes as a legitimate form of self expression - they just shouldn’t be the only way). If you think a friend is struggling really, genuinely check in on them - and this is what ‘R U Okay Day’ is all about.

‘R U Okay Day’ is on September 14th - https://www.ruok.org.au/ - check out their website on tips on asking a friend of colleague if they are okay, and how to best support someone if you think they are struggling. 

Have a listen to this interview with a lawyer who struggled with anxiety and depression and how his strategies for combating the problem - https://www.thehappyfamilylawyer.com/podcast/episode-6-overcoming-anxiety-depression-jerome-doraisamy/

Also - check out JATL’s blog post featuring tips from writer and lawyer Clarissa Rayward on living a happy life in the law: [insert Clarissa post link here?]

If you are feeling in need of support there are so many resources out there:

The Desk: Tailored for Australian tertiary students. This is a great site with resources specific to looking after your mental health while you are at uni. <https://www.thedesk.org.au/about>

The Black Dog Institute: Specific resources on depression and anxiety, including research and clinical resources. <http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au>

Beyond Blue: Some really useful resources on anxiety and depression. <https://www.beyondblue.org.au/>

This includes an anxiety and depression checklist, which is a useful resource for some self reflection on how things are going with you... <https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety-and-depression-checklist-k10>

Lifeline: If you feel like you need to talk to someone, Lifeline offers a confidential counselling service, available 24 hours a day. 13 11 14 and their website is <http://www.lifeline.org.au/>.

Mood Gym: Interactive resources and strategies to help with anxiety and depression. <https://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome>

[1] Larcombe, Wendy; Tumbaga, Letty; Malkin, Ian; Nicholson, Pip; Tokatidis, Orania --- "Does an Improved Experience of Law School Protect Students against Depression, Anxiety and Stress? An Empirical Study of Wellbeing and the Law School Experience of LLB and JD Students" [2013] SydLawRw 15; (2013) 35(2) Sydney Law Review 407, 408.

[2] I encourage you to read the entire of Michael Kirby's speech: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/UNSWLawJl/2015/52.html