The 2007 Beaton Consulting and beyondblue national depression initiative revealed depression amongst legal professionals had reached alarming levels. When compared with other professionals, lawyers were found to have experienced the highest levels of depressive symptoms.
High levels of mental health issues can also be found amongst students studying law as well. Thirty three percent of law students suffer depression, compared with 18 percent of medical students and 13 percent of the general student population in this country.
But despite the prevalence of depression amongst legal professionals, it is an issue that remains largely hidden and stigmatised. Research has found that 86 percent of professionals keep a mental health issue to themselves for fear of how it might impact their career prospects.
A practical guide
A few years back, Jerome Doraisamy was in the early stages of his law career, when he left it behind to write a practical how-to guide for law students and young lawyers on how to cope with and proactively manage the issues that can arise within the profession.
The result was The Wellness Doctrines for Law Students and Young Lawyers. Released in October 2015, The Wellness Doctrines provides readers with practical solutions to deal with mental health issues based on the personal experiences of Mr Doraisamy and a range of other legal practitioners.
The increasing demands of the profession
In the forward, former High Court of Australia Chief Justice Sir Gerard Brennan describes The Wellness Doctrine as a timely book that “reveals the stresses that nowadays beset entrants into the legal profession in this country.”
Mr Brennan recalls that post World War Two there were relatively few students pursuing law, whereas today, there are a multitude of undergraduate law students, who are under great pressure to achieve academically and scrambling for the limited employment opportunities available.
“The risk of depression brought on by these or other factors is very real, and Jerome has frankly, and therefore authoritatively, identified many of the risks in this book,” the former chief justice wrote.
Speaking from experience
Mr Doraisamy understands the pressures that law students and young lawyers go through. Early on in his career, he suffered an 18 month bout of clinical depression and anxiety. At one point, he realised that despite having achieved all of his goals, he was having a breakdown.
Today, Doraisamy works as a journalist and is an adjunct law lecturer at the University of Western Australia. And due to the successful outcomes his first self-help guide produced, he’s recently released his second book, The Wellness Doctrines for High School Students.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke to Jerome Doraisamy about what young lawyers and students can expect when approaching the guide, the warning signs that people should look out for and what it is about the law profession that leads to such high levels of depression.
So, Jerome, what would you say it is about law schools and the wider legal profession in general that leads quite a number of individuals who enter into a career in law to develop psychological distress, anxiety and depression?
There’s a number of things. Statistically speaking, lawyers and law students are very competitive. They’re perfectionists. And those traits can be rather detrimental, if not reined in.
The way that we’re taught to study and practice law, we also have to be pessimists. We need to employ a pessimistic mindset in order to be successful, because we’re always looking for the worst-case scenario in any situation in front of us.
We need to maintain a certain amount of self-awareness about these traits. And if not, they can be detrimental.
There’s also a tendency of lawyers and law students to self-medicate with alcohol, which of course, carries its own risks. The number of jobs that are available for new lawyers coming into the profession, can be a cause of concern.
And also, with all the changes that are currently happening within the profession – such as tech innovation – there’s a lot of concern that jobs just aren’t going to be there.
There’s a whole range of factors that give rise to these issues, depending on each individual.
In the Wellness Doctrines, you give an account of your own experience of having a breakdown. You actually came to a point when you realised that you had been suffering depression for some time.
For young law professionals who are out there at the moment, what are some of the warning signs they should look for that might reveal they’re having difficulties?
It’ll depend on each person. I personally displayed signs such as not being able to fall asleep at night, having my skin break out and not being able to concentrate on particular activities because my mind was elsewhere.
But, some of the more commonly accepted ones include withdrawing from conversation and not really engaging with anyone, having a tendency to lose your patience or lose your temper, or if you’re just more sullen or softly spoken that can be indicative.
So, it’s important for each individual to figure out what their own idiosyncratic signs and symptoms are. And in order to get those out it can be really important to talk to the people in your life around you, whom you love and trust, like your parents, partners, friends and colleagues. Have them notice if anything is amiss or if you are acting irregularly.
And being able to have that self-awareness about your own signs and symptoms is a really good way to kick start proactively looking after yourself.
What can a law student or young legal professional who’s approaching The Wellness Doctrines for the first time expect to take from it?
I’d like to think that they look at it as a practical how to guide in order to manage yourself proactively as you start the early years of your life in law.
Ideally, no student will ever have to pick it up and read through it. But, for those who do feel the need for additional support, it offers practical solutions and strategies for managing a wide range of different issues they’re going to come across, both at university and in the profession.
It showcases the experience of lawyers that have come before them, including managing partners, junior and senior solicitors, academics and graduates. In that sense, it’s a by lawyers for lawyers kind of approach.
For any student or young lawyer who reads it now, it showcases those experiences, blending personal experience with practical solutions and strategies, and hopefully, it should offer a really handy survival guide for them.
Despite mental health issues being so prevalent in the law profession, this is an issue that remains hidden and stigmatised for the most part. You took the bold step of speaking out publicly about your experiences with depression whilst working in the profession.
What would you say you learnt or gained from opening up about your experiences, and further writing about them?
A couple of things. On a personal level, you learn just how important it is to be open and honest in order to be true to yourself. And you realise that if you don’t put your health and your wellbeing first, then nobody else is going to do that for you.
And without optimal health and wellbeing, nothing else can be achieved in your life. So, what I like to tell people is that in order to be a productive successful lawyer, you first need to be a happy and healthy person, because one cannot exist without the other.
I also learnt that no matter what you are going through, there’s always going to be people there who love and support you and will be there for you no matter what.
Therefore, you don’t necessarily need to fear about the societal stigma too much, because there will always be somebody who understands. There will always be somebody who is willing to listen and help you out with whatever you need.
Ultimately, it’s about being true to yourself. And being true to those around you.
Besides being able to access the practical advice in your book, what else is out there at present for young legal professions and law students who might be having troubles? And are their programs or mechanisms in place to deal with their issues specifically?
Most law firms have some in-house program or initiative through which lawyers can seek assistance if they need to, such as employee assistance programs or confidential counsellors that they provide access to.
The law societies in each state and territory will also provide confidential counselling for practitioners.
There’s also other online resources that don’t tailor specifically to lawyers. Websites like ReachOut.com provide outstanding practical resources for those in need.
But, it’s also really important that people take a certain amount of individual responsibility for themselves and recognise that it’s just not up to their workplace to look after them, because we are only at work between nine to five.
Outside of those hours, we have to be doing things to look after ourselves, whether that be going to the gym or playing a team sport or going to book club. They’re all certain activities and events that we can be doing that will make us feel better and give us a balance.
Yes, it’s important to have those institutional mechanisms in place, but it is also important for us to step up ourselves.
As you’ve just mentioned there are some institutional mechanisms in place, but given this is such a prevalent problem in the profession, do you believe that law schools and law firms should be playing a more proactive role in ensuring that students or young professionals, as well as older practitioners, are mentally coping?
Yes, of course. These kinds of in-house programs are only useful in conjunction with providing a hospitable and engaging workplace. You can’t be working people to the bone and then just throw an in-house program at them and expect that to magically solve everything.
You need to be properly fostering and supporting your new lawyers as they come through the ranks. Not working them to the bone. And being able to then breed institutional loyalty and reduce turnover by making sure lawyers feel motivated and inspired to come to work every day, rather than dreading it.
When it comes to addressing these issues on a broader scale, it’s more about getting to the culture of law firms and the legal practice in order to help get the most out of every individual.
You’ve just released your second self-help guide, The Wellness Doctrines for High School Students.
Why did you decide to focus on high school students for your second book on mental wellbeing? And how did your approach have to differ when writing for this demographic?
I decided to write that one, because I realised that a lot of the issues I suffered when I was at law school started back when I was at high school as a student.
Therefore, I felt like it was an important demographic to reach out to, because high school, especially the senior years, is incredibly stressful for teenagers going through that stage of life and they could do with all the support they could possibly get.
Obviously, having gone through high school myself, I felt like I could offer some legitimate practical guidance for them.
In terms of the writing style and how did that change, I had to tailor my message and my tone a lot more to teenagers, rather than to lawyers, which was a real challenge, but a really good one at the same time.
And lastly, Jerome, how do you see the situation regarding mental health issues in the legal profession, as well as other professions and industries, developing in the future? Are there other entities taking a step similar to what you have in addressing the issue and perhaps in a more systematic way?
A lot of industries are becoming more cognisant of the issues. And they’re all taking relevant steps to address that.
I know in the construction industry there’s a really big focus on reducing the rates of suicide and suicide ideation, because that is something that is particularly prevalent in that kind of industry. And industries like accounting and financial services are becoming much more cognisant of the prevalence of such issues.
When it comes to law, I think law was ahead of the game compared to other industries, but there’s still a long way to go. Even though it means now in law conditions are much better than they were ten years ago, there’s still a long way to go, so we can’t take our eye of the ball just yet.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.