As a lawyer, you shoulder the burden of many responsibilities. Yet your career shouldn’t have to come at the detriment of your mental health. Unfortunately however, according to the Black Dog Institute (2016), 33% of lawyers and 20% of barristers suffer disability and distress due to depression. And they do not seek help.
So, why are lawyers especially prone to mental health challenges? Various theories exist, but it’s commonly thought to be because the field naturally attracts perfectionists – and promotes a culture of burnout.
With R U OK? Day approaching on Thursday 10 September, it’s an important reminder to check in with your colleagues and employees. One conversation at a time. (And in 2020, this is especially important given the widespread stress and uncertainty everyone is facing.)
But what if someone responds that they’re not OK?
While we all know how to start the conversation, navigating those next steps can be tricky. Here are some pointers to help you help them as best you can.
Listen – with compassion and curiosity
There’s one thing that should never be underestimated: the power of listening. When someone truly listens to us, we fulfill one of our deepest human longings – to feel heard and understood.
But what are the differences between a good and bad listener?
A good listener practices active listening. This means listening with all their senses. They maintain eye contact, nod their head when appropriate, and seem verbally engaged by saying ‘yes’ when they agree or simply ‘mmm’.
A great listener also asks open-ended questions, such as ‘What’s been going on lately?’ or ‘You don’t seem like your typical self, what’s happening?’
Validate their concerns
There is nothing worse than being vulnerable with someone to only have them respond that you’re overreacting – or by highlighting the ‘greater tragedies’ in the world.
This can make people feel disheartened and unlikely to share again. Suffering shouldn’t be compared, as we all experience it to varying extents. It’s never unimportant or silly.
Instead, you should reaffirm that their feelings are legitimate and try to see it from their point of view.
Don’t transform into a ‘fixer’
Humans are often described as natural ‘problem-solvers’, with our first instinct being to fix.
But when it comes to someone sharing in a moment of vulnerability, it’s best to avoid this impulse. Because no one likes unsolicited advice.
Most of the time we just want to feel heard.
When you work on making someone feel heard (rather than trying to solve their issues), you also gain a deeper understanding of their situation. This better position you to offer the right resources, if needed.
Encourage them to accept or seek help from you
Asking for help or admitting that they’re not okay is often daunting. But you can help make this challenge easier for your colleague or employee by being non-judgmental and letting them know you’re there.
Start by asking some open-ended questions, such as:
- How can I help?
- Is there something I can do right now to make things a little easier?
While they might decline the offer, it’s still important for them to know the option is there.
Determine whether they need urgent help
Your colleague could be suffering more than you know, or more than they’re willing to let on, at first.
While bringing up the suicide conversation can be intimidating, it may be necessary. And rest assured, asking if they’ve had thoughts of suicide or self-harm won’t make things worse for them. It can actually help ease their distress.
Of course, it’s important to ask these tough questions in a compassionate, non-judgmental manner.
Listen to their response, while letting them know you care and want to help. If they do express suicidal thoughts, encourage them to call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Encourage them to seek professional help
If someone is experiencing a persistent drop in their wellbeing, it’s a sign they should talk to a professional.
In Australia, we are lucky to have an amazing network of mental health professionals and support groups. But the best place to start? The GP.
Their GP will ask questions to understand their situation before referring on to a psychologist or other mental health professional. Your colleague may also qualify for a Medicare mental health care plan, which entitles them to rebates for up to 10 individual and 10 group appointments with a psychologist in a year.
Follow up, regularly
The first conversation shouldn’t be the last. It’s important that you check in regularly with your colleagues to see how they’re going.
Let them know you’re here and always happy to chat. Just knowing that someone is there for them can be an amazing source of emotional support.
Need some more helpful resources? For urgent help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. These organisations also offer some great support and resources: