Stigma: Depression in the Legal Profession

  • February 22, 2014
  • Emily White

Stairs without support going up to a lit doorwayIt's time to put the stigma of mental illness in the past

In 1999, while I was standing in line for a flu shot at a Bay Street law firm, the nurse announced that people with mental health problems should probably avoid the vaccine. The senior partner beside me quipped, “But that would disqualify half the firm!” and I started running some silent calculations. I was being treated for depression, but didn’t want anyone to know. However, I also didn’t know why the nurse had made the announcement. If I was on Zoloft, would I get some strange side-effect? Ultimately, I decided to stay in line, simply because walking out might be a clue to others that I was severely down.

It’s good news that the situation has changed in the past few years. More lawyers are admitting to depression. The mental health services provided by the LSUC through Homewood Human Solutions are well advertised, a special website has been created for lawyers seeking assistance for a variety of concerns, and many lawyers who work up the nerve to admit to depression are being met with positive responses.

“I can tell you that on occasions where I dealt with lawyers who went to their firms to talk about the fact that they were struggling with depression, generally—about 99% of the time—the partners and firms were very understanding, and they tried to help,” says John Starzynski, a retired member of the Law Society who’s spent years tackling the problem of stigma within the profession. But Starzynski notes that he wasn’t hearing all the stories out there, and that he knows that some lawyers might be met with less encouraging outcomes.

With the Rules of Professional Conduct still requiring lawyers to report serious “mental instability” in their colleagues, there is justifiable confusion about what is or is not safe to say.

Unpredictability might be the best way to characterize what lawyers are facing today when it comes to depression and other mental health issues. “It’s a patchwork,” says Doron Gold, a lawyer and therapist who works with the Member Assistance Program at Homewood Human Solutions. The mental health resources available at a firm, he explains, “depend on who’s there, and who considers it important.” One firm might be quite nurturing, while another might adopt a survival of the fittest approach that doesn’t offer much support.

The most consistent form of help available to lawyers is the confidential service funded by the Law Society and offered through Homewood Human Solutions. Ontario lawyers, law students, and paralegals can contact Homewood for in-person counselling, phone counselling, referrals, and peer support. However, some lawyers are hesitant to call—partly because they fear that the LSUC, which is funding the service, will hear about them using the service. Gold insists that this doesn’t happen, stressing that, “We don’t report anything more than statistics about the types of issues people are calling about and the number of calls we get.”

But guarantees of confidentiality often aren’t enough to overcome what Starzynski describes as the “uneasiness” of talking about depression within the profession. With the Rules of Professional Conduct still requiring lawyers to report serious “mental instability” in their colleagues, there is justifiable confusion about what is or is not safe to say.

One way of helping lawyers, suggests Yolanda Goudeketting, is to stop talking about depression. Goudeketting is a clinician who spent 14 years managing a program on work-life wellness at a financial institution. Her focus was education, and she began with a seminar on “male depression.” The results were not inspiring.

“Three people showed up, and they were all women. I eventually learned that how I worded and titled the seminars really mattered.” She realized that, instead of focusing on depression, which is stigmatized, she had to focus on solutions to depression, which aren’t. “So we would do things like work-life balance, time management, relaxation, communication skills, and emotional intelligence.” Information about depression would be “embedded” in the larger seminar, meaning every seminar was helping to “introduce a bit of normalization around mental health issues. People started showing up because the topics were interesting, and slowly but surely they were getting information on the invisible disabilities they were afraid to talk about.”

Goudeketting says that a similar model could work at large law firms. She notes that lawyers were among the employees she worked with at the bank, and that, while they were reticent, “many other parts of the bank were reticent too.” The notion that lawyers simply won’t ask for help isn’t entirely true. It might be the case that lawyers see themselves as problem solvers, but they aren’t necessarily any more “Type A” than anyone else.

it would be great if law firms started attending to this. I think it would help close the gap in terms of wellness and mental health in the legal profession.

When I asked Heanda Radomski, a therapist who has acted as an educational consultant to the corporate world, whether lawyers are any more perfectionist than school teachers, she said no. “I don’t believe they’re any more perfectionist, but the expectation is to be perfect, so there’s a disconnect.”

One way of tackling this disconnect is to start acknowledge that lawyers aren’t perfect, and that they do have problems. This is the approach being taken by Osgoode Hall Law School, which has recently hired Melanie Banka Goela as its first Student Success and Wellness Counsellor.

Banka Goela admits that some students are troubled by stigma, and are uncomfortable showing up for appointments with her, but she jokes that, “I’m not off in some dark corner. I need to be available and visible, because we’re trying to challenge some of the stigma by saying, ‘This is absolutely fine.’”

Banka Goela offers individual counselling and support, as well as referrals and resources. She’s there because the students insisted they needed someone. “The student body was saying there weren’t enough immediate or meaningful mental health supports available to them in light of the pressures they faced.” The response to her being on campus has been tremendous. “There’s been a lot of feedback about how helpful this position has been. One example is that I get a lot of word of mouth referrals, which I think is huge for the law student population.”

Students are learning that it’s acceptable to have mental health concerns, and to talk about these concerns. “When a student says, ‘One of my peers said that I should come to you,’ it just warms my heart.”

Ontario law schools are also beginning to assess which mental health services are available where. Banka Goela explains that a provincial grant is allowing for a collaboration between all the schools to “look at what our in-house supports are—so that we can get a better idea of what kind of support programs each of us is offering, and what kind of counselling services we’re offering, and then comparing and evaluating these, so that each school is equipped with some knowledge around where the best investment of resources would be in terms of gains to the student body.”

When the project wraps up in March of 2015, each school will have a solid sense of what other schools are doing. This could be a good starting point for firms as well. Gold notes that some firms do offer wellness education—and some invite him in to speak on the issue—but there’s no data on who’s doing what. “Everyone’s on their own,” Gold says.

In addition to sharing information, firms could carry on the work that Banka Goela and other administrators are doing within the schools. Talking about the wellness education students are receiving at Osgoode, Banka Goela says, “I’d love to see this continue through the trajectory of their careers. So it would be great if law firms started attending to this. I think it would help close the gap in terms of wellness and mental health in the legal profession.”

Banka Goela notes that a role such as hers could work at a large firm. The role would have to be integrated into another position, such as Director of Associate Programs, in order to avoid stigma, but if the director had counselling expertise, associates would have someone to turn to with concerns. There are also practical ideas—such as phased-in returns for employees who’ve been on mental health leave—that could be applied in any firm.

The main focus, though, has to be changing attitudes at the top. A positive attitude to mental health and wellness, explains Radomski, “has to be implicit in a company’s culture, in its values, and in the policies—it has to be across the board. Otherwise, the bits and pieces you do won’t work.”

There’s a general consensus that forcing employees to attend mental health sessions is unethical. “To impose something like that on a captive audience might trigger someone. It might mirror what they’re experiencing,” says Radomski.

A very different argument can be made, however, with respect to managers. Goudeketting explains that, at her financial institution, “there were certain programs that managers had to attend, because they had to learn how to help their people with depression and other invisible disabilities. So these courses were mandatory, because of that leadership role. We actually did a heavier course for the executives than we did for the juniors.”

Radomski insists there are good reasons to push for emotional health in the workplace. “There’s the business rationale. How many people are suffering from depression in the office? How much sick time are they taking, and how many dollars does that cost?” Depression doesn’t just trigger losses associated with absenteeism and presenteeism (when a lawyer is at his desk but spacing out), it can place a strain on colleagues who worry that something’s wrong, and—as Doron Gold explains—it can lead to people just walking out the door. “You don’t want to spend all that money training people only to have them leave,” he says. “You want to nurture your people. It’s good business to focus on wellness.”

The notion that the profession needs to do more is definitely beginning to register. Roy Thomas, speaking for the Law Society of Upper Canada, says that mental health is “on the  radar,” and that a task force might be struck to explore the issue—in much the same way that a task force was struck on the issue of retaining female lawyers.

Pascale Daigneault, president of the OBA, also recognizes the significance of mental health issues. “This is an issue for our profession just as it is for all professions, and we support the work that Homewood is now doing. The time when there was a stigma attached to mental illness is in the past, and those people who need help should be seeking it when they need it.”

Comments such as these can lead to real change. The LSUC task force on retaining women ultimately resulted in the Justicia Project, and the OBA created the initial Ontario Bar Assistance Program, which turned—over time and with various funding partners—into the Ontario Lawyers Assistance Program and now Homewood Human Solutions. The profession has taken action when it comes to improving the lives of Ontario lawyers. All that’s needed now is a slightly sharper focus on mental health—and then further change might be on the way.

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Emily WhiteAbout the Author

Emily White is a former lawyer who now works as a writer.

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