*Content warning: Today’s blog discusses suicidal ideation
“I get by with a little help from my friends.” John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote it. Joe Cocker sang it. Way back in the 1960s.
It was true then, and it is still true. Having a friend—or friends—is important to our well-being. Social support, as it can be phrased in well-being literature, builds resilience, and helps us ride out storms in our lives.
The pandemic has increased feelings of loneliness and isolation, amplifying these issues which were already problematic in our profession. In 2018, the American Bar Association reported a survey which found that law was the loneliest profession. Assist launched its first coffee circles in 2018 partly in response to this research but also as a result of comments we heard from lawyers who told us that even though they saw people during the day, they still felt lonely and isolated. We posted notices about our coffee meeting time and place with sole purpose of being a safe place to hang out with warm-hearted and non-judgmental lawyers.
We morphed our coffee circles to enhance access to senior lawyer peer support volunteers for articling students and junior lawyers in light of the 2019 Law Society Articling Student Survey which revealed the depth of issues faced by articling students, from harassment and discrimination to not feeling prepared to practice law independently. These were the in-person Red Mug Coffee Circles where our volunteers had red mugs for identification purposes. We moved online when the pandemic hit, but managed to develop a strong sense of community and caring with lawyers, students and NCA candidates/ graduates across Alberta. We celebrated with students who successfully completed PREP, found positions, were admitted to the bar or who had additions to their families. Mondays at noon are one of my favourite times of the week—and everyone in the legal community is welcome to join us. See the notice at the top of this newsletter.
I am an introvert, and, like other introverts, I think I drew further within myself during the pandemic—especially after my remaining child at home moved out. For many introverts, it wasn’t much of a stretch from physical isolation to emotional isolation. It worked for awhile, until it didn’t.
Some of us are only discovering how isolated we had become as we return to our offices. While working from home, we were efficient! Some lawyers billed more during covid than ever before in their careers because there were fewer interruptions (unless they were parenting or care-giving while practicing law) and were disappointed that their productivity suffered back at the office. After two years of not exchanging pleasantries with people in the hallways and coffee rooms, some found that their socializing “muscle” had atrophied due to lack of exercise. We may have lost some of the glue that made our colleagues our friends.
Today, I want to talk about friends and, specifically, being a buddy. Like many of my blog posts, this one arises from the confluence of several distinct issues and events that cross my desk around the same time. But to talk about the need for us to be buddies (which can be less demanding than being friends,) I have to talk about a sensitive topic: suicidal ideation.
A recent international survey of lawyers disclosed that during the pandemic, almost one in five lawyers and law firm staff had considered suicide during the course of their careers. This is a frightening statistic, and it shows a dramatic increase from the American Bar Association’s 2016 survey where more than eleven percent of respondents disclosed that they had had suicidal ideations during their careers.
While we are working the kinks out of returning to work and are struggling to develop in-person relationships again, June has arrived, and June is Buddy Up Challenge month, a campaign designed by the Centre for Suicide Prevention to encourage authentic conversations to reduce suicide. The Buddy Up Challenge invites us to engage in activities with our buddies, track our activities and submit the results of our buddy activities at the end of June. Prizes are available, but the real value is in taking a conscious approach to cultivating friendship.
Anyone can be a buddy regardless of gender, and many of the Buddy Up strategies can help people of all genders to have deeper and more meaningful relationships.
It is possible that the pandemic caused the increased rate of suicidal ideation in the recent survey, but there is an important difference in the populations of the two surveys: the 2021 study covered lawyers and staff, which is an unusual but very welcome development. Historical wisdom was that staff who are unhappy with their jobs can easily leave and find a new position, while it is harder for lawyers whose workplace causes stress or distress to leave. It is possible that including law firm staff contributed to the increase in suicidal ideation shown in the 2022 survey. In this blog and at Assist generally, we focus on lawyers (and articling and law students), but we should keep in mind that secretarial work—an archaic term for assistants—was one of the classic high stress jobs due to having low decision latitude and high demands. And firm environments which are challenging –or perhaps toxic--for lawyers are often challenging for staff as well.
Buddy Up encourages authentic conversations. It was designed for men to help other men because men die by suicide three times as often as women, and women are believed to be better served by existing resources. However, Buddy Up’s tools can be used by and for anyone.
Buddy Up encourages participants to follow a simple model of caring through four easy steps:
We tend to pay attention to people in our midst, especially if we have a relationship founded in mutual caring. When you observe a change in a person’s behaviour, it can be a clue to what that person is experiencing. Dr. Brian Forbes, the head of Assist’s psychological services program, notes the following changes as warning signs that a person may be experiencing stress or distress:
Take your cues from the other person’s response. If they say “No, everything is fine,” you can respond with “I want to make sure that you know that I am here for you if you ever want to talk. Why don’t we get a coffee this week?” You are making yourself available to that person for further conversation.
If the person responds by telling you that they are in a life crisis, encourage them to talk to you and ask how you can provide support. As a buddy, you can actively listen and show that you understand what they are telling you but solving their life issues can go beyond what most of us, as buddies, can do. Consider offering to help them find additional resources if they need a higher level of assistance.
You can call Assist’s 24/7 crisis counselling line (1-877-498-6898) if the person is in distress or if you feel like you are in over your head. Please consider doing a “warm hand-off” to a counsellor, placing the call and staying in the room with the distressed person until you have the Assist counsellor (a registered psychologist) on the line. If you are like me and you worry about every detail of a potentially stressful situation, you can be prepared to say something like:
I understand why you are distressed—this is a serious situation. Would you be willing to talk with Assist’s counsellors? They have great strategies and techniques for managing the stress associated with situations like this. I will stay here with you until we get them on the line, and then I will leave you to have the conversation privately. It is a confidential and non-judgmental service, so you don’t have to worry about anyone finding out about it. Would you like to call me after you talk to the counsellor so I can make sure you are okay?
But just as importantly as following the four steps to assist someone in distress, you can engage in regular activities with a buddy (or someone that you are concerned about.) This is the Buddy Up Challenge which runs each week of June.
Week 3 includes sending a song, meme or joke to a buddy and celebrating Father’s Day. I always worry about celebrating special recognition days like Father’s Day or Mother’s Day if you don’t have a good relationship with your father or mother or if they have passed on. But inviting a buddy who would otherwise be alone, too, can be a way of celebrating these days.
Week 4 includes doing something outdoors with a buddy. We have great outdoor recreation opportunities wherever you live in Alberta—walk, cycle, swim, whatever it is that you like to do outside. Just invite a friend.
Please consider signing up for the Buddy Up challenge at buddyup.ca/challenge to submit your activities. You are raising awareness and becoming eligible for prizes including two $500 Amazon gift cards. Individuals and organizations can be Buddy Up Champions.
Let’s make June a time when we practice our Buddy Up activities and watch out for people in our midst who may be lonely or who may be struggling with personal issues. Take a risk and ask the person who is riveted to their desk or doesn’t seem like themselves if they would like to go for coffee even if they aren’t part of your regular coffee run. Loneliness and isolation were problems before the pandemic and they intensified during the lengthy lockdown. While some people are bouncing back vigorously now that our society is re-opening, other members of our community are still experiencing loneliness and isolation as well as serious personal life and mental health challenges. Being a buddy doesn’t mean that you must solve people’s problems for them—you just show that you care and then help connect them to the right resources. Lawyers in Alberta are fortunate that we can reach a registered psychologist through our 24/7 crisis line if we start a conversation that gets serious, and we need specialized help.
Remember that you can suggest that your buddy call Assist or visit our website for more information about our programs, including peer support, coffee circles, yoga, and mindfulness, and we provide four sessions of professional counselling per person per issue per year. Call us at 1-877-498-6898 for professional counselling and at 1-877-737-5508 for everything else.
And here is a further example of the confluence of issues around isolation, suicidal ideation and being buddies this week. After putting together the first draft of the blog, I learned that Dr. Brian Forbes, the head of our professional counselling program, did his Ph.D. thesis on loneliness. He is a great resource if you are feeling lonely or isolated or if you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or thoughts of self-harm. Please call. We can help.
A Little Help From My Friends
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