Mental health in the legal profession: Are we asking the right questions

  • June 11, 2019
  • Candice Ashley Pollack

On April 6, 2019 the Canadian Bar Association hosted its first-ever Health and Wellness Conference at the Shaw Center in Ottawa. Covering topics such as technology-based resources for mental health promotion, addressing the stigma of mental illness, reducing the risks of secondary trauma and compassion fatigue, and the state of addictions among lawyers, the conference was an all-encompassing look into some of the most pressing issues facing our profession.

As I listened to the presentations and the informal discussions that took place throughout the day, I was repeatedly struck with the thought, or rather the question, “Are we asking the right questions?” I’m a big proponent of evidence-informed decision-making; I believe that in order to create solutions, we need to have a really in-depth understanding of the problem. So, what do we actually know about the mental health challenges of lawyers in Canada?

First, we know that lawyers are among the top three professionals to face substance abuse issues, along with doctors and police officers. We know that approximately 58 per cent of lawyers in Canada have experienced significant stress and burnout, 48 per cent have experienced anxiety, and 26 per cent have experienced depression. We also know that lawyers perceive stress and/or burnout, anxiety, and depression as some of the biggest health issues facing our profession. At the same time, we know that this information comes from a survey conducted in 2012, that not everyone responds to surveys, and that not everyone responds to them truthfully. Based on these issues, it is hard to tell if we truly have a clear picture of the state of wellness in our profession today.

While this information is an incredibly important start, I do not think it is enough for us to make informed decisions about how we should best respond to this challenge and improve the well-being of lawyers across Canada. While I am not an expert researcher and have no background in collecting and analyzing data, I think we need to ask more questions, and we need to make sure that the questions we ask will elicit the answers we need to develop a targeted strategy or approach for health & wellness in the profession. If we have the resources to administer another survey, I think we should also be asking questions on the following:

  • Disaggregated demographic data. Understanding the demographics of mental wellness is critical to developing solutions. We need to better understand how mental health is affecting young lawyers, lawyers from ethnic minorities, LGBTQ2IS lawyers, and indigenous lawyers, among others. We need to know whether certain population groups are more likely to experience certain kinds of mental health challenges, or more likely to experience them at all.
  • Existing capacity for enhancing well-being. Lawyers are smart, resilient individuals. They are going to employ their own coping mechanisms and find their own resources and supports when they are facing challenges, potentially outside of the legal community. Knowing what strategies and mechanisms lawyers are already using to support and maintain their well-being could be used to identify new approaches and solutions that will work for our profession as a whole.

It is critical to the advancement of this issue that we continually ask ourselves, “What are the next steps?”

I want to acknowledge the great work that was done at the Health and Wellness Conference. The panelists were exceptional and the content was excellent. The Lawyers’ Assistance Program representatives have continued their vital work and continually demonstrate their commitment to improving well-being in the profession at each roundtable I had the pleasure of attending.

Finally, I would like to express my deepest thanks to the Canadian Bar Association for leading the way on mental wellness in the legal profession and continuing to support the participation of young lawyers in these important conversations.

P.S. I would also like to thank Pooja Chugh, LAP representative from the Northwest Territories, for taking a room full of lawyers through a dance routine to Applebottom Jeans—it was an experience I never knew I needed to have in my life, but I am so glad I did.

Candice Ashley Pollack is the Executive Director of the APPTA Hub and a Member-at-Large on the CBA Young Lawyers Section.