Why lawyers are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues

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By Elizabeth Rimmer on

Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, shares her tips on how to thrive, not just get through the day

The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), which runs from 8-14 May, is ‘Surviving or Thriving?’ and this year, rather than asking why so many people are living with mental health problems, the aim is to uncover why too few of us are thriving with good mental health. Good mental health is more than the absence of a mental health problem: some of us are struggling to cope with the demands of life, and are stuck on just getting through the day.

We all have mental health, and it includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, and affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices about our lives. Mental health issues range from the worries we all experience as part of everyday life, to serious long-term conditions. It can be easy to dismiss mental health problems as something that happen to other people, but research shows that one in four of us will experience them each year. And the legal community is no exception.

Our goal during MHAW is to get the legal community talking about mental health. MHAW provides the perfect platform from which to raise awareness of the importance of wellbeing and how it impacts mental health. There are five steps we can take to improve our wellbeing:

• Connect with the people around us: our family, friends and colleagues.
• Be active. Find time for a physical activity you enjoy.
• Keep learning, new skills can boost confidence.
• Give to others — just a simple kind word to someone can improve your wellbeing.
• Be mindful. Be more aware of the present moment, including feelings and thoughts, our bodies and the world around us.

Wellbeing matters because it brings a number of benefits: greater self-esteem, optimism, resilience, vitality, self-determination, positive relationships, better physical and mental health, greater motivation, greater creativity and more productive work.

What is it about the culture and practice of law that can compromise wellbeing? It’s not that lawyers are genetically predisposed to poorer wellbeing: there is something about the culture of law, legal education and professional practice that can make lawyers vulnerable. The culture is one known for poor work/life balance, long hours and a competitive environment. The legal profession also tends to attract perfectionist personalities, and this combination of factors can take its toll on wellbeing.

Students can feel daunted by intensive study, exams and the pressure of securing a position, while newly-qualified lawyers can be apprehensive about the transition into practice and taking on more responsibility. Students and junior lawyers can try to follow good wellbeing strategies to manage stress: planning ahead where possible, rewarding themselves when tasks are completed — and taking a break before starting the next one — and taking a lunch break everyday. Regular exercise and eating well are also important.

In terms of thriving, resilience is recognised as an important factor in the increasingly demanding and changing legal environment. Resilience is the ability to resist or bounce back from adversity, and there are people who thrive on challenges and difficulties, while others find it hard to cope with unexpected change or problems.

Highly resilient people are flexible, adapt to new circumstances quickly, and thrive in times of constant change. Most importantly, they expect to bounce back and feel confident that they will. That expectation is closely linked to a general sense of optimism, and finding the positive aspects in most situations is a skill that can be evolved: the right mental attitude to cope, and even flourish, when the going gets tough, can be developed.

Ten tips:

• Learn to see challenges, mistakes and failures as valuable learning experiences.
• Give ourselves a pat on the back when things go well. Be kind and forgive ourselves when things go wrong.
• Don’t give in to negative thoughts. Challenge them, and ask whether they are true or realistic.
• Use humour to defuse and downplay difficulties. We can laugh at ourselves and situations.
• Be flexible. Recognise that nothing stays the same, especially in the workplace.
• Take care of physical and mental health. Get enough sleep, exercise and eat well. When our physical self is in good shape, we are less fragile.
• Take time off and take breaks during the day.
• Recognise that a bad situation is usually temporary.
• Build a support network. Make time for friends and family who offer encouragement and strength. Consult supportive work colleagues.
• Don’t extrapolate one bad situation into another unrelated situation. We can’t be good at everything, recognise areas of strength.

Attitude and perspective are fundamental to building resilience: paying attention to strengths and how to develop them, learning to accept that things won’t always go well, focusing on what is working rather than what’s not, and we will all be on our way to thriving, rather than just surviving.

Elizabeth Rimmer is the CEO of LawCare, whose free, independent and confidential helpline provides a space for you to talk about anything that may be worrying you. Contact LawCare here.

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