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Speaking of mental health | AJ Jakubowska

Friday, August 05, 2022 @ 11:05 AM | By AJ Jakubowska


AJ Jakubowska %>
AJ Jakubowska
Mental health challenges are not a sign of weakness. No one would tell a woman with a complex fracture of a limb that she is weak and yet, for some reason, a lawyer experiencing anxiety will often suffer in private lest he or she be labelled as “less than.”

The Law Society of Ontario has waded into the mental health waters, or is at least attempting to do so. The Mental Health Summit held earlier this year was well-attended by all accounts and featured a number of passionate speakers, often addressing the subject from personal experience. I watched with interest.

Here is my ratio for this piece: mental health among family law professionals must be a topic of not only discussion at forums and through questionnaires but it must also be tackled at ground level, every day and with sustained effort. This must begin with normalizing the idea that any person working in our field is likely to experience mental health issues at some point and in some form. Stress and anxiety can manifest in ways one would not normally associate with mental health problems. We need to be watchful.

These sound like truisms, don’t they? But they aren’t. Not for us, and not in 2022.

I have given thought to this subject for a while now. Over the last 26 years, I have watched lawyers, articling students, law clerks, paralegals, support staff and many others working in our field experience various levels of trauma, anxiety, depression, sleep-deprivation, self-doubt, addictions, eating disorders and other symptoms.

I am not a stranger to mental health challenges myself so I feel more comfortable than I otherwise would chiming in on the subject. Migraines, elevated blood pressure, two visits to the emergency department to address anxiety. I have wept and held others while they were weeping. I have kept confidences of colleagues at the end of their tether, their relationships on the brink, battling eating disorders and addictions. Much of this has taken place in private. On the outside, many of these functioning victims have continued to do just that — function behind a veneer of strength, resilience and the “I don’t get stressed” bravado.

I do realize some people handle stress better than others. No, let me rephrase that — I realize people can react to stress differently. Student A may suffer from bouts of insomnia, robbing them of energy to complete a challenging set of assignments due the next day. Senior lawyer B may appear cool, collected and in full control during work hours but at night, “medicate” heavily with alcohol or even use drugs during the day. Mid-level lawyer C might be approaching her clients with a flat effect, appear inattentive or be moody and unapproachable.

In a perfect world, all of these professionals should have an outlet to address their issues. They should also feel comfortable doing so without worrying about stigma, judgment, reprisals and even being written off as “weak” or unable to handle the rigours of litigation.

Maintaining good mental health takes work. I love analogies so here is one: growing an indoor tropical plant. To remain healthy and to bloom on a regular basis, houseplants need to be fertilized, have enough exposure to sunshine, they need water and frankly, loving attention. We need all those things too, and not only in our personal lives.

Maintaining good mental health while working in our field can be challenging. After all, we deal with people at their most vulnerable, often angry, disappointed, scared and feeling like they are out of control. They come to us to help them keep it together and to protect them. This can be a tall order and over time, maintaining this role can drain our own mental and even physical resources. The first step is to recognize our wells can run dry very quickly. The more watchful we are, the less likely that is to happen.

Cancelled vacations are not uncommon in our field of work. If not cancelled, they are converted into working holidays. Some family law professionals, particularly early in their practice, do not take vacations at all. If you ask them why, many say they “can’t.” When you probe further, they have difficulty explaining. “I just know I can’t,” one told me. But you should; in fact, you must. If you take a week off, you will spend the first couple of days slowing down to holiday pace but even so, you will rest, and you need that rest. Our bodies need it and so do our minds.

Just like our tropical indoor plants, we need to be fed, watered and fertilized. Nutrition is important. A healthy body will help in maintaining good mental health.

Setting time aside for non-law activities and interests is equally important. Schedule rest or hobbies into your calendar if you need to — this may sound odd to some, but it works. If you wait for time to make itself available for a walk in the park, you might never actually see that lovely chestnut tree.

We are busy professionals. We deal with vulnerable people. We want to help them, often as a priority. We must not neglect ourselves in the process. It’s easy to forget our own resources are finite, that they must be replenished. Drained batteries take much longer to recharge after long, uninterrupted use. A bike ride or a movie can do wonders, provided you have left your phone out of easy reach.

We need to talk about mental health, bring it out of the shadows and into the light. I cannot see any other path to a place where those who suffer are not stigmatized.

AJ Jakubowska is a family law lawyer, family mediator and SANE SPLIT podcaster. She practises in Newmarket, Ont.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients,
The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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