Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Happy Holiday to all and to all a Good 2023!

Happy Holiday to all and to all a Good 2023!

Is anyone going to miss 2022 when it leaves us? It has been the third in a succession of challenging years. 2020 was the year that brought a global pandemic to us with widespread lockdown and isolation orders, something we had never thought could happen in our technologically-advanced world. 2021 brought us uncertainty—when would the pandemic end, and would we be able to return to life as we knew it? 2022 brought the resumption of a modified version of pre-pandemic life. Many embraced the opportunity to re-engage socially and travel. Others became ill, and a pediatric trifecta of viruses wreaked havoc in young children, overrunning our healthcare system yet again. Are we having fun yet? Not so much.

Goodbye 2022—don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

For many in our community, 2022 was a tough year. It sure was in my family--lots of bad medical and veterinary news. This year has been overwhelming and disheartening, but I am hoping that the holiday season will be joyful and that 2023 will be better: for you, for me and all of our loved ones.

In keeping with 2022 having its share of bad news, The National Study on the Health and Wellness Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada  was released last month. The findings that lawyers are experiencing depression, anxiety, psychological distress, suicidal ideation and substance use, were hardly surprising to Assist—we deal every day with lawyers, articling students and law students who are experiencing these conditions. But the extent to which survey participants (Canadian lawyers, articling students, Quebec notaries and Ontario paralegals) are suffering was unanticipated.

Here is a refresher on those survey results from my blog last month:

  Lawyers Articling Students General Population Page Reference
Major depressive disorder  28.6% 43.6% 15% 36
Psychological Distress 57% 72% 40% 30
Burnout 55.8% 62.9% Not stated 47

When I read the 2016 American Bar Association lawyer well-being research, I was shocked that more than 11% of survey participants (US lawyers) reported that they had experienced suicidal ideations since becoming lawyers. But in the Canadian survey, 24% of Canadian lawyers, surveyed in 2021, reported experiencing suicidal ideation since commencing their careers—more than double the rate of our American colleagues. Canadians also disclosed drinking patterns higher than those of American lawyers, not a surprise since we know that alcohol and cannabis consumption rose during the pandemic, but a very serious concern.

And not all demographic groups are affected equally—young lawyers, women, Indigenous lawyers, ethnicized lawyers, disabled lawyers and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community had even higher rates of distress. While you may read this list and conclude that non-disabled straight white men have it made, Law Care in the UK released a report this week outlining issues faced by male lawyers and the barriers to men seeking help.

The statistics are grim, and there is work to be done. Not an inspirational picture.

But there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel: The National Study researchers released their recommendations earlier this week, and I can now see that our metaphorical glass is half-full. There are problems in our profession causing individuals to suffer, but we have a path forward, there appears to be a collective will to address systemic factors, and different organizations in Alberta are already employing strategies identified in the recommendations.

Assist, as an independent lawyer assistance provider, is already fulfilling most of the recommendations addressed to lawyer assistance programs which are largely run by law societies in other provinces. We will be diving deeper into the remaining recommendations while we wait for Alberta-based data from the study itself.

Assist is well-positioned to continue to support lawyers, articling students, law students and dependent family members as we engage in activities to improve lawyer well-being. Please remember that psychological issues are generally more easily resolved the earlier you seek help. And you can use Assist’s services proactively.

If you know that you are facing a situation which will elevate your stress level (does the holiday season come to mind?), you can meet with a counsellor proactively to develop strategies to use when your buttons get pushed. This is part of our program—4 sessions per person per issue per year which are free to you.

You can also meet with a counsellor on our tab for an annual check-up. Just as you visit your physician and dentist annually, you can see our psychologists for an assessment of how you are doing. Sometimes we are carrying more stress than we realize, and we convince ourselves that we are doing fine.

I had one of those realizations this week, that I was carrying more stress that I realized and that perhaps I wasn’t dealing with it as well as I thought I was. I opened the mail that had accumulated in my community mailbox. There were no holiday cards, alas. The first envelope was a traffic violation that I knew was coming—I had seen the flash of the camera at the same time that I realized I was in a playground zone. Oops. But my mail also contained a conviction of a traffic violation from August that I really don’t remember.

I am not a perfect driver. I may get one ticket every few years. But to receive a ticket and a notice of conviction on a ticket I forgot about in one mail collection cycle, that just isn’t me. And it began to dawn on me that my stress was not well-contained and was impacting my behaviour, both in the speed at which I operate my motor vehicle and in how I was keeping track of financial obligations. At Assist, we tell people to consider meeting with a counsellor if they just don’t feel like themselves or if friends or family tell you that you don’t seem like yourself.  I realized that I meet that test.

We don’t always have clear cut eureka moments like mine. Sometimes we have a vague sense that something is off. We may hope that that “something” is going to go away by itself. We may even think it has gone away, when it may just have gone underground.

Please consider calling Assist proactively or for a well-being checkup. This is part of the service we provide, and the earlier we seek help, the more easily issues are resolved. In a profession where time is money, we want to minimize the amount of time we spend taking care of ourselves. It is worth talking to someone early—it will take less of your time.

Lawyers, and all Albertans, have embraced counselling via online platforms. As lawyers, we learned that we could effectively fulfill our professional duties using technology. The counselling profession had the same experience. You can just shut your door or find a quiet spot without travel time to meet with your counsellor.

The holiday season can be challenging. We all want to experience the Hallmark Christmas movie life that media show us: perfect decorations, beautifully wrapped (and perfect) gifts, with all of our loved ones getting along and sharing joy. But the reality is that our holiday seasons will be filled with ups and downs. Many of us will have to spend time with family or friends who we don’t really like and who seem to know how to get under our skin. Don’t be hard on yourself if your holiday season is more like Little Miss Sunshine than Hallmark. And if you need to talk to someone or if you feel a crisis coming on, remember that we have 24/7 crisis counselling all through the holidays. Call 1-877-498-6898, press 0 when the automated system picks up your call, and you will be transferred to a senior psychologist with extensive experience in assisting people in distress or crisis.

Instead of focusing on how challenging 2022 was, I am looking forward to the good work Assist can do in 2023 based both on the recommendations supporting the National Study and from Alberta lawyers’ use of our programs and services. We will be helping individual lawyers to develop the resilience-building skills of assertiveness and psychological detachment which seem to protect against harmful stress. We will be working with partners in the legal community to raise awareness about stressors endemic in our profession and to communicate strategies. We will provide support to legal employers who want to reshape firm culture to enhance their lawyers’ health and well-being because healthy and well lawyers provide better services to clients. We will be educating all members of the legal profession that Assist provides confidential high-quality counselling services, that professional counselling and peer support can lead to positive outcomes, and that many lawyers who face mental health and well-being challenges can and do overcome these challenges with the support Assist provides.

Assist’s fiscal year is November 1 through October 31st, so we are already in fiscal 2023 (thank heavens!). I received our F2022 annual report from our professional counselling services provider this week and want to share a compelling statistic. Over the last fifteen years, over 29% of Alberta lawyers used Assist’s services. More than one in four lawyers have sought and received help through our professional counselling program!

This is the most powerful anti-stigma tool we have: based on usage of our program, it is normal and appropriate for Alberta lawyers to seek counselling when they encounter stress, distress, or crisis. Not only is it normal and appropriate, it is actually desirable in a profession that has high rates of depression, anxiety, psychological distress, suicidal ideation, and substance use issues.

As we move from the challenges of 2022 to our hopes for 2023, I would like to share my holiday season greeting with you, based on the opening stanza of Clement Clarke Moore’s’ iconic poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas:

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

As a child, I loved these lines without knowing what sugar plums were! It turns out that sugar plums are not plums at all. They were a type of candy in the nineteenth century—a hard, sugar-based coating around nuts or seeds.  I could probably take or leave sugar-plums, now that I know what they are. But when I was a child, they sounded wonderful. The only other context I had for sugar plums was that there was a sugar plum fairy in the Nutcracker suite, and they had to be pretty special to have their own ballerina fairy.

As an adult and a lawyer who cares about lawyer well-being, I want something equally special for the Alberta legal community during the holiday season and close of the year:

As 2022 fades into black, dare to dream! Imagine a career where you feel respected and where you can advocate for your feelings, needs and rights. Imagine a workplace where you can draw a boundary between your work time and your essential recovery time.

May 2023 be the year we can recognize the importance of both assertiveness (in the psychological sense), detachment, de-stigmatization of mental health issues in our profession and improved law culture.