Blind to the Red Flags

  • June 14, 2024

Dear Advy,

I recently saw a study that mentioned how lawyers often did not get help with mental health issues as they believed that it was a case of “this will pass,” or “well everyone goes through this.” I guess my question is, what are the red flags I should look for in myself and colleagues that are going through tough times or bumps in the road. Are they bumps, or are they potentially mountains? As lawyers, being resilient is drilled into us early on in law school. We are taught to push through our issues, and I cannot help but wonder if there are times that I should be reaching out for help instead of continuing down the bumpy road (please pardon all the road/bump analogies). What should I be looking out for in terms of red flags. I know some signs are not always obvious if my own experience is anything to go by.

Blind to the Red Flags

Dear Blind,

You are absolutely right. Lawyers responding to the 2022 National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada reported very low levels of seeking help, and cited explanations such as expecting that the problems would pass as reasons for that. Lawyers, and people in general, often avoid seeking help. The report also found that in some practice areas and in some regions, levels of burn-out and psychological distress were so prevalent that those conditions were likely being normalized in segments of the legal community.

Before we go on that bumpy road-trip of life you mention, let’s take a moment to tune-up and do an oil change on our assumptions about what road signs we should watch out for. I promise I will abandon that metaphor before it gets tired (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun).

You are also right that many symptoms of mental health distress are not obvious red flags. That problem is compounded by the very nature of mental illness. Depression, for example, often causes an individual experiencing it to doubt his/her own judgment. Depression and anxiety (not to mention other less widespread conditions) also often distort one’s perception of reality in ways that prevent help-seeking. For example, an anxious individual is likely to be more worried than someone not experiencing anxiety about contacting a local lawyer assistance program for fear that self-reporting symptoms may get back to the regulator, the lawyer’s employer or the legal community in general, with costly consequences to the lawyer asking for help (See “Concerned About Confidentiality”). Substance abuse can cause even more profound distortion of your ability to see yourself and your actions with clarity.

In short, the condition itself often blocks you from recognising that you need help and/or being willing to ask for help. Remember also that problem mentioned above. Burn-out and other things that may take you over the tipping point into mental illness are so prevalent in some sectors that they have become normalized. Not only are you at a disadvantage because of your own cognitive make-up, but there is a decent chance that your environment is conditioning you to ignore the signs of psychological distress.

I will give you some things to watch out for, but the most important point here is that it is a mistake to rely on your own self-observation. No matter how vigilant you try to be, you are at an enormous disadvantage if you rely on yourself alone.

The good news is there’s no reason to just rely on yourself. You mention that “being resilient” is drilled into us from law school. The fundamental mistake we make is to think that “resilience” is an individual quality. By and large, resilience is not an element of your individual character. Resilience is largely a factor of your supportive connections with others. There is some fascinating research out of Dalhousie University supporting the conclusion that the key to resilience is connectedness and community, not your ability to “tough it out” alone. In fact, holding onto the idea that you should be able to manage it on your own can work against your ability to get through difficult times.

That lesson to be resilient is a good one, but most of us have a distorted notion of what resilience means. How do you go about developing that supportive community? There is no single answer. One easy solution is to set up a working relationship with a professional counsellor now. Your local lawyer assistance program (LAP) has that covered for you. There is no reason to wait until you notice you are unwell to set up that relationship. Just as you (probably) don’t wait to get a cavity before seeing a dentist, you don’t need to wait for a crisis to sit down with a counsellor. That outside perspective from someone who is trained to detect the red flags you are asking about is much more effective than your own, often unreliable, self-reflection. A good road trip is better when you have someone helping you navigate the twists and turns along the way. Those services are free, within limits. You are already effectively paying for those benefits in one way or another. Why wait to make use of the supports that are available?

Many of those lawyer assistance programs do more than provide access to formal, professional counseling. They often also offer peer support and group support programs. Those that do not can likely refer you to outside agencies and groups that can help you develop a supportive network. One of the most effective preventative cures for psychological distress available is having a community of caring people who can help you notice difficulties you may be going through and – even better – prevent them from developing in the first place. As the song goes, “I get by with a little help from my friends”. Call the number for your local LAP, explore what’s available to you, and consider that an investment in building real resilience.

I promised you some advice about what to watch out for. When you are mentally healthy, you are in control of your own thoughts and behaviour. Your thoughts and behaviour do not interfere with your daily functioning. If you are mentally healthy, you do not harm yourself or others.

What are the red flags of psychological distress? The list of specific behaviours or patterns of thought is too large to provide here, but they all share the common thread that they represent a departure from mental health. Mental health and mental illness are not an either/or proposition; they are a spectrum. We are all more or less healthy from moment to moment. For the reasons explained above, it is difficult and sometimes impossible for you to judge where you fall on that spectrum in any given moment. If you catch yourself wondering why you did something or said something, that does not mean you are mentally “ill”, but it does mean that it is worth checking whether you could benefit from some help.

You mention that you are also concerned about how to watch out for issues in your co-workers. Good for you for being alive to the fact that well-being is a collective problem. We help ourselves best by helping those around us. Consider taking some training in mental health first aid and workplace mental health. Many lawyer assistance programs will facilitate that kind of training in their jurisdictions, so again a good place to start is your own local assistance program.

In a way, those respondents were mostly right. When you are experiencing a mental health crisis, it is probably true that it “will pass” in one way or another. The key is to take control of your mental health now so that you can prevent a crisis from occurring in the first place and mitigate its effects if/when one does happen.

I hope some of what I have explained here helps you keep your hands on the steering wheel while you navigate those bumps on the road.

Be well,

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