It’s Time to Address Mental Health in the Legal Profession

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Stressed lawyer

It can be an incredibly tough job: the pressure of delivering in open court every day, the burden of others’ futures in your hands, several dozen serious cases at any one time, long hours, accessibility around the clock, regular exposure to graphic images and footage, and harrowing information.

Research has consistently found that lawyers are in the highest risk category for mental health issues, and recent studies suggest that judges and magistrates are particularly at risk.

Statistics suggest that one-third of solicitors and one-fifth of barristers suffer disability and distress due to depression, and that’s only the professionals we know about.

The problem with depression, trauma, stress, PTSD and other mental health problems in the legal profession is that they are seldom talked about.

But David Heilpern, a highly-respected local court magistrate, author and academic is on a mission to change what he believes is a hidden epidemic which too often goes untreated, leaving legal professionals to turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate.

Vicarious trauma

Mr Heilpern speaks from experience. In 2005, he was dealing with a string of confronting child pornography cases. He found himself waking in the middle of the night “screaming, sweating and panicked.”

“I started dreaming of these children and the torment perpetrated upon them,” he recalls.

“I thought it would pass, but it did not…. I thought I had a pretty good ‘distance’ from my work…

“It’s my job to actually judge whether this man did those terrible things to that child, or whether that victim really did strike first”

Heilpern was suffering ‘vicarious trauma’ – an ‘internal transformation’ experienced by professionals who come into contact with disturbing situations, information or materials whereby they begin to show symptoms similar to those experienced by victims.

People who work across the criminal justice system are all potentially susceptible – lawyers, judges, mental health professionals and witnesses.

Stress causes suicide

The legal profession was shaken by the suicide of promising young lawyer Tristan Jepson who took his own life in 2004, at the age of just 26.

In 2005, Sydney tax lawyer Matthew Stutsel also ended his life after a long battle with depression. Ironically, Stutsel was the ‘poster boy’ for beating mental illness – giving hope to law students and lawyers who were suffering from the debilitating condition.

The problem is that those involved with the law are supposed to be ‘tough as nails’ and speaking out about mental health can be seen as a sign of weakness. This culture starts at law school where the stakes are high, and continues after graduation when only the ‘best of the best’ are ultimately rewarded with job offers.

Long hours mean many lawyers sacrifice time with friends and family. Some begin to believe that if they show signs of stress, they will jeopardise their future career prospects. So, they soldier on, more often than not, in silence and isolation.

Some mental health professionals believe more people will be at risk of mental health disorders as courts embrace new technology. Graphic video and photographic evidence can have a significant impact. Video and photographic evidence is fast becoming the ‘norm’, and it’s harder for the mind to disassociate from images.

Tackling the issue

Magistrate Heilpern is right – the issue of mental health cannot be ignored, it must be acknowledged and tackled head on.

This means a number of things – including that lawyers must admit and address their issues. Law firms need to be supportive and helpful, which starts by encouraging a healthy work/life balance, because having time away from stress is one of the best safeguards.

As the profession begins to deal with the issue more honestly and openly, the benefits will be two-fold: it will create an environment that’s healthier for those individuals who choose careers in the profession, and this will in turn be better for those who the profession serves.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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