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From the president: Mental health matters

From the president: Mental health matters

By Tania Wolff

COVID-19 Health Opinions Wellbeing 

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COVID-19 has exacerbated prevailing vulnerabilities in the legal profession – we need better ways to support one another.

Over the past few years, internationally and closer to home, there has been an increased awareness of the importance of mental health and wellbeing. At some point, almost half of all Australians will have met the diagnostic criteria for mental illness; or one in five people, in any given year. According to the World Health Organisation, by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of disability and disease burden globally. 

Last year the Productivity Commission released a report on its inquiry into the economic effects of mental health. The costs are staggering with an estimated $550-$600 million per day attributable to the direct costs of mental health and suicide, and the indirect costs associated with diminished health and reduced life expectancy for those living with mental illness. In Victoria we lose approximately 700 people a year to suicide, which is three times the annual road toll, and more than 10 times that number are admitted to hospital as a result of self-harm, with young people making up an alarmingly high proportion of that number. 

The interim report of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System has indicated that “transformational” change, including significant investment, is required to make our public mental health system fit for purpose. We await the recommendations of the final report.

Lawyers are especially susceptible to mental ill-health, in particular depression, anxiety and high rates of suicide, given our stressful and pressurised work environments. No one is immune: even before COVID-19 forced us into isolation, to engaging with the world through computer screens, most of us would have experienced a mental health challenge personally, or known of a colleague, friend or family member struggling with mental health issues. 

The current discourse about these issues has helped reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, but given the adversarial nature of our profession and the combative quality of much of our professional exchanges, more is needed. There is nothing in our training or in the demands of our professional development, that requires us to engage in regular counselling, support or even structured reflective practice, as distinct from other professions.

For the past decade I have been immersed in issues concerning mental health and addiction, and the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities, through my work in community legal practice and on the Mental Health Tribunal. These health and wellbeing issues will be the central focus of my 2021 presidential year. 

COVID-19 did not create the current mental health crisis, but it has exacerbated prevailing vulnerabilities and brought them to the fore. 

A paediatrician told me her organisation has recently hired a psychiatrist to help its staff debrief at work, due to the increased numbers and acuity of cases involving distressed children and adolescents. 

As a legal community, we too need better ways to support one another. These are challenging times and the pace of life – its complexity and demanding, relentless nature – can easily take its toll. As a minimum, we should value and prioritise the things that protect and advance our individual and collective wellbeing. There is no health without mental health. 

Membership organisations such as the LIV play an important role. If you are not already involved in one of the sections or committees of the LIV, join one. Not only will you be making a contribution to your profession and community, while deepening your knowledge and expertise, you are likely to develop invaluable friendships and relationships with colleagues and peers.

In addition to its employment assistance program, Converge, the LIV has employed a new wellbeing manager – the aim being to help the LIV design a wellbeing strategy and programs in response to the needs of members. We look forward to sharing details with you soon. 

For suggestions and insights on how workplaces might improve their working environments and better support the mental health of staff, I refer you to the excellent article by Paul Horvath and Ines Perkovic in the December 2020 LIJ (“State of mind” p24).

And I invite you to consider and adopt whatever tools and techniques will preserve your equilibrium this year: whatever people, practices or habits might help you manage stress, create the necessary work-life boundaries, reduce the digital encroach, support wellbeing or get you out of your head and into your body (meditation, yoga, running, hiking, tai chi or time outdoors). 

Anything that keeps you fit for life. ■

Tania Wolff
LIV PRESIDENT

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