Mental health and the legal profession

By Dr Michelle Sharpe

stigma

A stigma is a mark or sign of disgrace. To stigmatise someone is to characterise them as disgraceful. People suffering from mental ill health are commonly stigmatised in the general community. This stigmatisation may adversely impact upon a person’s self-esteem and their ability to access support to assist in their recovery.

The stigmatisation of people suffering from mental ill health within a profession, such as the legal profession, holds particular dangers to individual professionals. These dangers can ripple out to the profession at large and the consumers of these professional services.

The most immediate and obvious danger in the stigmatisation of legal practitioners who suffer from mental ill health is that it promotes negative and ignorant views of mental illness. These views seem to suggest a failure or weakness in sufferers. Many dangers flow from this, including the adverse impact that the disclosure of ill health may have on the careers of legal practitioners. For example, employers and colleagues may doubt the ill practitioner’s competency or suitability for legal practice. The practitioner may accordingly experience social isolation in the workplace and a reduction of opportunities for career advancement. As a consequence, some practitioners who are treated in this way may sadly conclude that their employers and colleagues are indeed right: they are not fit for practice.

The loss of a legal career (which may have been hard-fought and long-cherished) has adverse impacts beyond the individual. Not only does the practitioner experience immediate personal losses, such as self-esteem and income; the community at large will have lost the services of the legal practitioner. In regional areas these services may be sorely missed. The cost to the public in training legal practitioners for practice (even in fee paying courses) will have been wasted. And the profession may well have lost a legal practitioner that could have made a contribution to the legal sector, whether in mentoring others, or in improving access to or administration of justice.

Unsurprisingly, the stigmatisation of practitioners who suffer from mental ill health often discourages other practitioners from disclosing their own illness to employers and colleagues. A practitioner’s reluctance to disclose mental ill health may not only increase feelings of isolation that might aggravate the illness; it may also create a barrier to accessing much needed help and support.

Stigmatisation may also have a chilling effect on employers and colleagues providing this help. Help is unlikely to be readily available to mentally ill practitioners if mental ill health is viewed as a personal failing or as a personal trait that is inherently unsuitable for legal practice. A legal practitioner’s inability to receive help may cause harm beyond hindering the individual practitioner’s recovery. If the practitioner’s illness results in an absence from work, or in leaving the profession altogether, the community and profession will have lost the services of that practitioner.

Conversely, if the legal practitioner remains in practice without the required support, the unmanaged mental ill health of the practitioner may undermine the timeliness and standard of his or her work. It may cause a practitioner to withdraw into him or herself and impede communications with colleagues and clients. As a consequence, the end consumer of legal services – the practitioner’s client– may be adversely affected.

But this harm is not confined to individual clients. If a client incurs loss or damage as a result of a legal practitioner’s failure to maintain a high professional standard, the profession’s insurer may be required to pay compensation to that client. The size and volume of insurance claims have an impact on the cost of insurance to the profession at large. Further, there is the intangible cost to the reputation and standing of the profession in the community.

The ripple effect of stigmatising legal practitioners suffering from mental ill health can be seen to extend further still when it is remembered that tribunal members, magistrates and judges are drawn from the legal profession. And they take with them any mental health issues they may have had in practice, together with their attitudes and prejudices toward mental health issues. If the wellbeing of these decision-makers is similarly poorly supported in their workplaces, it is likely that the performance of these decision-makers will be adversely affected; in their timeliness and quality of judgments and in their dealings with the legal practitioners who appear before them and their clients.

Challenging the stigma attached to mental ill health is not just an act of compassion for those who suffer from mental ill health, but is ultimately an act of self-interest.

On an even broader level, the stigmatisation of legal professionals who suffer from mental ill health poses the less obvious and more insidious danger of undermining respect and compassion for others both inside and outside the profession.

Respect and compassion are integral to a legal practitioner’s ability to communicate effectively with their clients, their colleagues and decision-makers. They enable a legal practitioner to more readily identify a client’s needs and to communicate the range of options open to the client. They enable the practitioner to be more persuasive with colleagues and decision-makers.

Consumers of legal services who are treated with respect and compassion by legal practitioners and decision-makers are more likely to consider that they have received a fair hearing, whatever the ultimate result. With respect and compassion for others, a practitioner is less likely to descend into inappropriate workplace behaviour. Such may, in turn, have its own adverse consequences on the mental health of others.

It follows that the dangers of stigmatising legal practitioners are not limited to the practitioners themselves. They ripple out across the profession and the community at large. Challenging the stigma attached to mental ill health is not just an act of compassion for those who suffer from mental ill health, but is ultimately an act of self-interest. We are all connected. How we treat others contributes to a workplace culture and a community culture that influences how we are in turn treated.

Dr Michelle Sharpe is a barrister practicing primarily in the areas of general commercial and regulatory law. She chairs the Health and Wellbeing Committee at the Victorian Bar.

This article was first published on 29 June 2015, on Right Now and is republished on newlawyerlanguage with the consent of Dr. Sharpe.