Monday 10 October was World Mental Health Day (WMHD), a day put aside for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy. It was first celebrated in 1992 at the initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health. On this day each October thousands of supporters observe an annual awareness programme to bring attention to mental health and its major effects on people’s lives worldwide.
This year’s theme, ‘Dignity in Mental Health – Psychological & Mental Health First Aid for All’ is about contributing to the goal of taking mental health out of the shadows, so that people in general feel more confident in tackling the stigma, isolation and discrimination that continues to surround people with mental health conditions, their families and carers.
WMHD, and its theme, provides us at LawCare with the perfect vehicle to raise awareness of the Legal Professions Taskforce and its collaborative approach, as well LawCare’s work in providing support and promoting good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community.
The cross-profession Legal Professions Taskforce was launched in May this year. Initiated by the Law Society and driven by LawCare, the taskforce brings together representatives from legal professional and educational establishments, those with legal expertise and knowledge of the sector.
The goal is to identify areas where collaboration can be beneficial; identify mechanisms for establishing and sharing best practice; identify how to improve the perception of mental health and well-being, and address stigma as a barrier to accessing support.
Published data demonstrates that the culture and practice of law can have a negative impact on mental health and wellbeing. LawCare has identified that there is very low awareness of the support and services available to those in the legal community, and that there is stigma attached to acknowledging mental health issues. There is also a lack of knowledge in the community itself about good practice and what that looks like, and to date there is no evaluative research on the effectiveness of existing wellbeing programmes.
One of the ways we can support those in the legal community, and help to break down the stigma around talking about mental health, is to be aware of the main issues affecting people in the law. There were 907 calls to the LawCare Helpline in 2015, and by far the most common issue callers reported was workplace stress, at 30% of calls. Callers mentioned long, antisocial or inflexible hours; lack of support or supervision, and overwhelming responsibilities or difficulties at home, as the main factors causing them stress.
We also know, from our expeirence at LawCare that very often lawyers don’t notice the symptoms of stress.
Some of those symptoms are:
· Sleep deprivation: This is a vicious circle: worries about work lead to lack of sleep and lack of sleep makes it difficult to perform well at work.
· Physical changes: Headaches, skin complaints, frequent colds, aching muscles and digestive problems are often indicators of stress.
· Drinking and smoking: Many l turn to drinking and smoking to escape from the pressures of everyday life. However, alcohol is a depressant and smoking creates a new stress: the craving for a cigarette.
· Eating: You may find yourself comfort eating or skipping meals.
· Mood swings: You may become irritated and frustrated, get very angry one minute and feel fine the next. Other people may complain that you are short-tempered or difficult.
· Panic attacks: These can happen suddenly, for no clear reason. You may feel sick, short of breath, shake, sweat and experience a sense of unreality.
There are plenty of positive strategies to help people to manage stress, and at LawCare we encourage people to talk about how they are feeling and not to stay silent. Legal professionals can feel it’s a sign of weakness to admit they aren’t coping, but talking goes a long way towards addressing issues. And taking them out of the shadows.
Elizabeth Rimmer is Chief Executive at LawCare