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Ask a simple question: R U OK?

Cite as: September 2013 87 (9) LIJ, p.04

Mental health in the workplace needs attention.

By Reynah Tang, President of LIV

Having lost a loved one to suicide, I know the feelings of sadness and regret, and the inevitable question of whether we could have done more.

Yet amid the frenetic pace in which so many of us live, we often forget to pause long enough to ask someone close to us, “Are you okay?”. R U OK? Day is on 12 September. It aims to remind us to regularly check in with those we care about, particularly those who may be struggling.

It’s a particularly pertinent reminder for the legal profession. Numerous studies have shown that lawyers are highly susceptible to mental health issues. A 2011 Beaton Consulting and beyondblue study (, involving more than 25 professional associations and 100 professional service firms, found lawyers were the most likely to experience symptoms of depression (49 per cent) and anxiety (34 per cent). Disturbingly, lawyers were also significantly more likely to state their organisation would react negatively to someone experiencing depression or an anxiety disorder within the workplace.

There is no doubt that a mental health crisis has pervaded the legal profession. Why are lawyers more prone to this? There are mixed views, with some suggesting the combative nature of the profession, the types of cases that some lawyers are exposed to and the relentlessness of the job all have an impact. Negative stereotypes of lawyers don’t help. And personal factors are, of course, also very relevant.

Recently, Marie Jepson from the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation spoke at the LIV. The foundation was set up in memory of her son, a young lawyer who took his own life in 2004 after a long battle with depression. She believes the billable hours, and for partners the relentless focus on profit per equity partner, are part of the law firm culture that needs to be re-examined. But that can’t be the whole explanation, because other professionals, such as accountants, also bill and have their performance measured in the same way, yet do not seem to experience similarly high levels of mental health problems.

There has also been talk of the negative effect some judges have on lawyers. Former High Court judge Michael Kirby spoke of this earlier this year at a National Wellness for Law forum, suggesting that some judges had demonstrated bullying behaviour.

The LIV is striving to do something about the critical issue of mental health. A couple of years ago, we received a grant from the Legal Services Board (LSB) to establish a preventative strategy. As part of this, we launched the Vic Lawyers’ Health Line in April last year. It is a free and confidential service available to legal professionals, legal support staff and law students. We have also started using social media and videos to tell stories of the good things lawyers are doing to help boost the profession’s reputation and make lawyers feel better about themselves and the work they do. And shortly, we are hoping to launch another initiative to address mental health issues.

What is worrying is that there is evidence mental health and wellbeing issues can arise even before law students have graduated. A 2008 study by the Brain & Mind Institute at the University of Sydney, Courting the Blues, ( found 35 per cent of law students reported high or very high levels of distress, compared to 18 per cent of medical students and 13 per cent of the general population aged 18 to 34.

What perpetuates the problem is the reluctance of people to seek help. Lawyers are loath to show any sign of weakness. But we need to educate practitioners so that they can be assured that asking for help isn’t an admission of weakness at all. It could actually save your life. And we’re pleased that in response to our submissions, the Board of Examiners and the LSB have adjusted their position regarding mental health to take a more therapeutic approach.

This is not just a public health issue. Law firm leaders need to be spearheading the debate about work/life balance, and the entrenched cultures within their firms.

There are ways that you can reduce your risk of depression and anxiety – by exercising and spending time with your family and friends. I may not necessarily be a perfect role model when it comes to achieving that all too elusive work/life balance, but I try to have some down time. Even though being LIV president means attending lots of functions out of hours and at weekends, I make an effort to spend time with my family. I particularly enjoy playing games with my kids, cooking and travel. I enjoy eating out and reading, and have a passion for the Carlton Football Club although I don’t get to as many games as I’d like. I am also a bit of a Doctor Who tragic and look forward to seeing the new Doctor in action. And I exercise – mainly bike riding – whenever I can.

If you find you are struggling, talk to someone you trust. Use the Vic Lawyers’ Health Line (1300 664 744). And, if necessary, seek medical help from a professional.

Let’s also make a point of asking someone, “Are you okay?”. It’s a little thing, but it can make all the difference.


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