Discussion of men’s mental health is something that has been quite prevalent in recent times, especially as we know that the levels of men’s mental health issues in the UK are quite high.
Within the legal profession itself, there are a lot of pressures associated with being a lawyer, such as billing, clients, colleagues and firm pressures. All of these contribute greatly to how mental health has an effect on people generally.
Speaking as a black Muslim male who has been in the legal profession for over a decade, there have been a number of challenges that I have faced in terms of trying to keep it together and be the best professional I can be. There have often been times when I have felt like I have imposter syndrome and I have asked myself do I belong in this world? Also issues to do with having to work twice or three times harder as my white counterparts to get noticed or recognised. All of these have taken its toll over the years.
Working in the world of mental health, I often deal with people who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983 (as amended by the 2007 Act). The high levels, especially of black males detained in hospital is astounding. Many times, there are several pressures such as debt, family life, drugs and alcohol which are all contributing factors as to why people end up being detained under the Mental Health Act. These can often trigger underlying conditions that people may already have and then lead to having to engage with mental health services.
I am not ashamed to say that I had to take a step back from the profession late last year due to my own mental health, having suffered a massive burnout. This came as a result of continuously working hard for a decade without a real break, and the cumulative effect of not looking after myself properly led to me making mistakes and having to take back control of my personal self in order to be a better professional.
Covid-19 and mental health
In these times of Covid-19, the issue of mental health has been pulled into sharp focus even more. People are now no longer working in offices, which for some people may be the only social interactions they have on a day-to-day basis. The effect of having to work via Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams can be draining. Being used to having the routine of commuting, going out to lunch and liaising with colleagues over coffee has now been substituted by getting up, going to your kitchen, getting whatever supplies you want for the day and then sitting in front of a screen (or a dual screen) and working.
I have seen first-hand that productivity levels are up, but there is also a concern about working longer hours than you normally would, not getting outside of your house or flat, as well as limited social interactions.
For those with kids of school age or younger, there is also the added pressure of homeschooling or keeping your kids entertained whilst you are trying to work. For me and my family, having a four-year-old daughter who is in reception and a two-year-old son who was in nursery, its meant that between me and my wife making sure that we are able to work, we must also ensure that our health and wellbeing is taken care of.
We are one of the luckier families because my wife’s job and my consultancy work means we have a great deal of flexibility that allows for us to run our household in a way that brings minimal disruption for our children. There are the occasional appearances by them in our video conference calls, but colleagues are always receptive to this and understand that we are all in this together.
Looking at the issue of mental health itself, my tips for keeping my mental health in check are as follows:
1) Exercise: the government made clear that we can exercise for 30 minutes a day and we now know the guidance has changed to allow for unlimited exercise. Take advantage of this because it is so important to be out of your house or flat to get some fresh air, move your body and allow for clarity. My exercise of choice is to run 5k runs three times a week and on the remaining days, I take long walks with my kids to ensure they also get their exercise.
2) Journalling: During lockdown I have been keeping a journal to ensure that I am capturing my thoughts and feelings because it is a useful tool to reflect on the day and how you feel generally.
3) Reach out: For me, this is the biggest thing you can do. You should reach out to family and friends as much as possible. There are non-Zoom apps like Houseparty which I have used, as its more fun and interactive and allows me to play games with them whilst having that connection. WhatsApp and Telegram conversations are great too. I am part of a group called ‘Dope Black Dads’ which brings a group of black dads together and allows us to share our experiences of fatherhood as black men, as well as helpful solutions to family situations, which has been a great tool for me to be able to stay connected to my wider community.
My biggest takeaway to anyone who is struggling with their mental health is to reach out and ensure that you get the help and clarity you need. Reach out to organisations such as Mind and CALM as they can give great support and advice. If you feel things are critical, speak to organisations such as the Samaritans.
Wishing everyone continued strength and good mental health in these difficult times.
Umar Kankiya is a mental health lawyer with over 10 years’ experience. He runs his own consultancy Kank Speaks Legal Ltd in which he offers advice and assistance on mental health, communications and politics matters