Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

News & Events

Closing the Gap - Reducing Stigma in Lawyer Mental Health

Closing the Gap—Reducing Stigma in Lawyer Mental Health

Content Warning: this blog does not contain light-hearted anecdotes and attempts at humour, primarily because I can’t think of ways to talk about stigma surrounding mental health conditions in light-hearted or slightly humorous ways. Today, alas, is about the reality of mental health stigma in the legal community. So, settle in because we are going to talk about stats and data, and how we can become anti-stigma allies. Important, but not necessarily fun unless you are a data geek like me!

Many of us will have seen stigma about mental health issues play out in our professional or law school lives. It can be subtle, like black humour about someone who is different, or it can be explicit, like a partner saying, “A lawyer who uses Assist’s services should not be practicing law.” Most of us quietly shake our heads and hope that no one sees that these statements make us feel uncomfortable, and these situations make us even more reluctant to speak openly about our own experiences.

We know that stigma and the fear that others in our community would find out are barriers for lawyers who are experiencing mental health issues. The ABA’s 2016 Study quantified this: More than 50% of lawyers who had undergone treatment and more than one-quarter of lawyers who had not stated that not wanting others to find out they needed help was a barrier, and more than 44% of those who had undergone treatment and almost a quarter (23.4%) of those who had not undergone treatment expressed concerns regarding privacy or confidentiality.

The 2022 National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Legal Professionals in Canada also looked at the reasons we don’t seek professional help when we feel the need to do so: Almost half of participants (46.8%) responded Yes to the question “Have you ever felt the need to seek professional help because of psychological help problems, but did not?”

Here is how the Study authors explain the barriers:

Lastly, it appears that many professionals feared the repercussions of using such assistance. In this regard, 13.5% were afraid of the impact on their work, 3.3% feared being discriminated against, and 9.2% were afraid that others would find out. These numbers highlight that mental health and wellness issues may still be taboo within the legal community, where 13.6% of professionals do not seek the help they need because they are ashamed to do so.

We can also get a feel for how stigma operates in our profession through a series of questions posed by the Study. Participants were asked to respond to whether the statements below reflect their views.
Statement I think that…
People with mental health issues could snap out of it if they wanted to 9.3%
People with mental health issues are to blame for their problem 3.6%
Mental health issues are a sign of weakness 6.1%

Our views about mental health can change over time, as we learn new information and have new experiences.  A few decades ago, there were likely more people who believe that people with mental health challenges had made poor choices and that they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they had enough moral fortitude. But less than ten percent of Canadian legal professionals attach blame, weakness, and lack of effort to mental health challenges.

The National Study also asked participants what their colleagues think about the same issues—called perceived stigma—which provides insight into why lawyers and others in our community are reluctant to seek help or disclose mental health challenges:
Statement I think that… I think people in my profession think…
People with mental health issues could snap out of it if they wanted to 9.3% 44.0%
People with mental health issues are to blame for their problem 3.6% 38.0%
Mental health issues are a sign of weakness 6.1% 53.8%

The disparity between what we think, as individuals, and what we think our peers think is compelling. Only about ten percent of us believe that we can snap out of mental health issues if we want to—but four times as many lawyers think that their peers think this.

The largest disparity is between legal professionals’ personal beliefs about culpability for mental health issues as opposed to perceived beliefs: ten times as many lawyers believe that their peers blame individuals for their mental health problems. And almost nine times as many believe that their peers think mental health issues are a sign of weakness.  Wow—this is stigma in a nutshell.

Most of us understand that mental health conditions are complex, not blameworthy, and not associated with weakness, but we think that our peers do not share these views. Of course, we worry about what our peers would think of us if they knew about our mental health struggles!

At an organizational level, perhaps we are not having enough honest and informed conversations about mental health in our workplaces and our professional associations. We don’t know how our employers and our colleagues (let alone opposing counsel and judges) view mental health, so we rarely talk about our vulnerabilities in professional situations. Who wants to be judged as weak or blameworthy? We need to set the stage organizationally in order to be able to have open discussions about personal mental health.

Secondly, many of use black humour about difficult situations as a stress release mechanism.  But sometimes this style of humour can cause existing barriers to seem even more unfathomable when we see senior lawyers refer to another lawyer as crazy, for example, when their behaviours do not align with our expectations. And sometimes we don’t want to be perceived as being soft or sympathetic. Or we engage in discussions that are not respectful because we feel insecure. We can be a tough crowd.

We would assume that the lawyer who refers to others as “crazy” may not have much sensitivity or knowledge about mental health issues. Or maybe they are hiding their own insecurities. But this helps contribute to our perceptions that our peers have negative views about mental health and people with mental health conditions.

Here is an opportunity for Assist supporters: we need allies in our battle against stigma. When my children were young, I read Barbara Coloroso’s books about bullying, including The Bully, The Bullied and the Not-So Innocent Bystanders. She identified that by watching impassively, bystanders enable bullying to occur. At that time, I was doing a lot of work with harassment policies and investigations, and I saw the same pattern: when a harasser/bully gets away with harassment/bullying because bystanders look the other way, the harasser/bully is empowered to continue to harass/bully. However, when a bystander calls the harasser/bully on their behaviour, the harasser/bully frequently stops and the victim (for lack of a better word—this is what we used in the 1990s