“I’m not going to see a psychiatrist/psychologist/therapist/counseller, I’m not mad!”
As a family law barrister I hear this frequently from clients who are advised to undergo an assessment of their mental health and/or undertake therapeutic services. Their anger and fear that there ‘might be something wrong with them’ that can’t be seen or felt by way of physical pain, sometimes even exceeds their desperate desire to have their child returned to their care. Such is the stigma attached to having ‘mental health issues’.
So, it’s good to see Prince William and his brother Harry raise the issue of mental health and wellbeing as part of their promotion of the Head Together charity under the #oktosay campaign. The princes have spoken about their grief at the loss of their mother Princess Diana and Harry has said he got to a point where he had to seek professional help to deal with it. Prince William spoke to the pop star Lady Gaga noting that it’s important to have the conversation, ‘you won’t be judged’.
The stigma about emotional/mentalhealth issues is just as great for the professionals working with such clients, including us lawyers. We will happily, even proudly, show off a broken arm or leg caused by a skiing accident, whine endlessly about the recurring cold/headache brought on by the stress of preparing cases late into the night and lack of sleep but the unseen pain that causes depression and can bring on so many illnesses, well that’s the hurt that dare not speak its name.
To acknowledge that pain is to expose yourself as ‘weak’. And weakness doesn’t cut it in a competitive profession like the law. No matter how well educated, intelligent, insightful and plain talking we are as advocates and legal advisers, we can’t shake the feeling that to be emotionally vulnerable is, to somehow, be a bit of a loser. It’s embarrassing, shameful and humiliating, like wetting yourself in public -which incidentally, people will more readily admit to, if they were blind drunk at the time, than feeling low and in need of help.
I understand the reticence. I have spent most of my professional life thinking the same way and I am not a ‘touchy-feely, share everything’ person even now. However, something shifted in me some years ago.
I was in the high court doing a lengthy and difficult case. I began to suffer sharp pains in my head. I’m not prone to headaches so, naturally, I turned all Woody Allen and assumed the worst. Since I enjoyed general good health, I barely knew the name of my GP but I made an appointment. Luckily he confirmed there was nothing to worry about. I was just ‘stressed.’
Now, ‘stress’ is a catch-all buzz word that gained prominence in the 1990s when it covered everything from your reaction to learning that Robbie Williams had left Take That to finding out your house had burnt down and you only had 6 months to live!
The GP offered me pills, as doctors often do. I don’t like pills. A colleague suggested I try a Chinese herbalist.
She gave me a disgusting tonic to drink over a short period. It cleared the pains. More importantly, she asked me what I did for a living. I told her of the daily diet we family barristers have of reading and hearing about horrific abuse, inhuman acts and incomprehensible cruelty.
Ah, she said. ‘And where do you think all that horror goes while you’re dealing with it?’
It’s a big topic to cover in this article but she started me on the road to really understanding what I intellectually knew; that, as humans, we are not a disconnected collection of parts. We can pretend that we shake a case off the moment we leave the court room and that its impact does not carry over into our personal lives. And we can pretend that our divorces, bereavements, break ups, childcare problems do not affect our ability to be highly competent lawyers but of course life takes its toll on us. It may be slow burning, imperceptible, unacknowledged by us but it happens.
From that initial meeting with the Chinese doctor I went on to learn more about how we can be adversely affected by our experiences and how slowly corrosive it can be to our overall wellbeing.
I initially learnt for myself, to help me deal with the issues which plague those of us with a busy practice: the sense of overwhelm (I sometimes think that even if I worked 24/7 365 days a year, I’d still be behind on an attendance note or draft order!), the constant fight to get things done on time when there’s never enough of it, the drip, drip, dripping of energy and enthusiasm as we lurch from one case to the next.
Later, I qualified in a range of techniques at practitioner level and now I work with colleagues to help them deal with similar issues to those I’ve experienced.
Regular readers will know that I’ve recently teamed with another barrister, Jo, to provide this service to the legal profession, both to individuals and groups of lawyers and legal staff.
It’s been a real eye opener to hear barristers, solicitors , clerks, even judges speak so candidly to us about the pressures of a busy practice as well as the career ambitions that we can also help with.
We call ourselves The Balanced Brief and if you would like to find out what we can offer you, email me in confidence : firstname.lastname@example.org
Many professions are now, slowly, recognising the impact on productivity of the ‘unseen pain’ many people live with and work through. It all comes under the umbrella of ‘wellbeing’ which seems to be the new catch all buzzword to cover a multitude of difficulties and how to combat them.
The Bar is finally coming on board with services to help barristers.
The Inns as a group, together with the Bar Council and the Institute of clerks have introduced the Wellbeing at the Bar portal, citing wellbeing as ‘having the resilience to carry out your professional duties in a healthy way.’
Middle Temple has held mindfulness and yoga classes.
Jo and I have are providing coaching services to a number of chambers which take the wellbeing of their members seriously and we are aware that they also arrange meditation classes and other health options for both their barristers and staff.
Interestingly, city law firms that depend on their members to bring in the money for the firm are more attuned to the physical/emotional/psychological needs of their employees. If they become aware of an issue, they offer the employee a range of services and resources to help them get back to full health. It may be something as simple but rejuvenating as massages or exercise classes or something deeper such as support from counsellors or therapists. In the USA, coaching, whether life coaching or career coaching is seen as a badge of honour. Having a coach -someone who guides you through whatever issue you are facing and helps you to use your own inner resources to overcome problems or achieve goals, is a sign that you are at the top of your profession!
On this site I’ve written 3 articles about my experience of bereavement. Many people have written or spoken to me to say how much they were helped by these.
We welcome any personal articles from you which you feel may help others. They can be anonymous.
It really is ok to talk. It really is ok to seek help. And it really is ok to acknowledge when you’re not quite feeling ok!