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It’s OK to not be OK: Mental Health Week

It’s OK to not be OK: Mental Health Week

By LIV President Belinda Wilson



“It’s during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light” - Mental Health Foundation Australia.

This week is Mental Health Week, a week not only to raise awareness of mental health, but to educate and engage, as it is something that affects us all, either personally, or as a friend, family member or colleague.

One in five Australians experience a mental illness in any year, and as a legal profession, we do not escape these statistics. In fact, rates of depression and suicide are higher in our profession than in the broader population.

As lawyers we are not unique, yet we come to the profession with a certain personality trait, we are often too hard on ourselves and our best is never good enough. We are also witnessing a younger generation enter the law already in a heightened stressed state due to the pressures of studying and the pressures of securing a job. Throughout our careers we are shaped by our clients and experiences, both good and bad.

Last week on SBS’ Insight  program Jenny Brockie spoke to a group of criminal lawyers who shared their experiences of working in the criminal law jurisdiction. This program should be mandatory viewing – for law students, all lawyers, their family members, and the media. If ever you have had someone ask you “how could anyone defend such people”, this program explains it all, with passion, empathy and experience from criminal law veterans.

It also explained the pressures that we face as professionals in the legal system. The overwhelming response was that as lawyers we find ways of coping, be it debriefing, alcohol, rationalising or building resilience. However, all of those mechanisms can crumble when you are not in a good place. Lawyers can find it difficult to acknowledge that they are not coping and it is hard to admit vulnerability.

There is the pressure of doing your job, which is always underpinned by strong ethics. However, the pressure of doing the very best for your client, a key element in why we do what we do, can also be an emotional burden.

There is no doubt that as lawyers at times we can, and do, suffer from vicarious trauma and post-traumatic stress. Some of the cases that we have dealt with will never leave us and can’t be switched off when we close the office door. For me, I recently touched on this during a podcast with Lawyer by Day after the suicide of a client in a family law matter, and then being in the middle of a grief stricken rampage carried out by the deceased’s brother.

We also need to consider those around us that may also suffer this second-hand trauma - our support staff, court staff, judges, barristers and police.

This is a week to acknowledge each other, to strive to be that better person, by not only acknowledging our own vulnerabilities, but those around us that may be suffering.

We can all be better peers by being aware and supportive. Not only ask the question of our colleagues, but be prepared to hear the answer if they are reaching out for help.

If you are not ready to reach out to a colleague at this stage, that’s OK. You can confidentiality speak to a counsellor through the LIV Member Assistance Program whether it is for you, or for someone that you want to know how to reach out to. It’s OK to not be OK, as long as you know that the profession has your back and you can get help.


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