Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Mental Health Week and Well-Being in Law Week

Mental Health Week and Well-Being in Law Week

The COVID-19 pandemic and work from home orders, both of which arrived in Alberta in March of 2020, enhanced creative thinking. All of a sudden, we couldn’t do things the way we always had, and we had to be resourceful. As it dawned on us that working from home was not going to be a brief respite from the workplace world, Assist collaborated with our volunteers and moved programs online, and we decided to launch a weekly newsletter so we could all stay in touch as we weathered the new reality.

In early April, I realized that my counterparts in the US, a wonderful community of lawyer assistance program executive directors, observed Well-Being in Law Week in early May. No one in Canada was observing it as it was a creation of the American Bar Association National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. But there was also nothing to preclude us from declaring our own well-being week, building on the American program, so we did.

Our first foray into Lawyer Well-Being Week was quite simple. My sixth blog post introduced the concept:

If Lawyer Well-Being Week weren’t scheduled for early May (May 4th to 8th), we would have had to invent it. Most of us are starting Week 7 of Working From Home (hereinafter defined as “WFH” or, as many prefer to say, “WTF”.)

Rallying around activities we could do together (online) but apart would be the shot in the arm we could have (although not the one we needed which would not arrive until the next year).

The key to success would be to have bite-sized events, activities, or actions that were accessible. We created five theme days to reflect five dimensions of well-being (per the National Task Force Path to Lawyer Well-Being):

Assist Community Monday: where all were invited to our online Red Mug Coffee Circle with a Star Wars theme since it was May the Fourth. Alas, only Glen Hickerson and I dressed up, but we had fun.

Positivity and Creativity Tuesday: where all were invited to engage in creative activities or building positivity activities on their own.

Physical Activity Wednesday: where all were invited to online yoga or to do some form of physical exercise of our choosing. We had about 3t0 lawyers across the province joining us for yoga.

Serenity Thursday: a webinar on Mindfulness led by Dr. Thamerai Moorthy, one of Assist’s excellent registered psychologists.

Anti-Anxiety Friday, with an online anti-anxiety tea party—a small but mighty group who gathered for the sake of gathering.

We had a bit more lead time in 2021, and in 2022, CBA-Alberta joined us to celebrate Lawyer Well-Being Week. We populated a calendar for the week with activities for lawyers across the province.

And this year, you will see information coming out from CBA-AB, the Law Society, and ALIA about mental health in the first week of May. It is wonderful to see the focus from our sister organizations in support of Mental Health Week.

The convergence of Lawyer Well-Being Week, the US version, and Mental Health Week, the Canadian version, is a coincidence, but it was another reason why Assist declared the first week of May to be Lawyer Well-Being Week in Alberta.

Mental health exists along a continuum—we have good mental health at one pole, and as we move along to the other pole of poor mental health, we have a wide range of possibilities. We may experience slight anxiety about situations in our life, but we respond using healthy tools like deep breathing and mindfulness. We may experience grief but seek out support and stave off depression. But in other cases, anxiety may magnify, and depression may manifest itself, while other individuals may encounter a myriad of other issues: burnout, addiction, psychological distress, to name three others which figure prominently in the 2022 National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Legal Professionals in Canada 

Yet, regardless of the fact that we know that we all have mental health, the same way that we all have physical health, we tend to associate the words “mental health” with being on the negative end of the spectrum. It is important for us, in the legal community, to normalize talking about our mental health, both good and sub-optimal (even downright bad).

Well-being has different connotations. It describes a state of being but focuses on the process of moving towards being well. Regardless of whether we are on the mental health continuum, there are actions we can take and practices we can follow which help us move more solidly towards the good mental health pole. It is this process that Assist likes to celebrate during the first week of May, sharing activities which supports the idea of moving back towards good mental health—more specific than just supporting good mental health.

The activities that we each need are personal, depending on our own situations. A lawyer who is concerned about their substance use might benefit from joining us on Tuesday for our free fifteen Mindfulness session, but we would hope to foster a connection between that lawyer and Assist so that when the lawyer is ready to tackle the issue of dependency or addiction head on, they know where to turn and feel comfortable with who Assist is.

Assist’s Lawyer Well-Being Week events align with the dimensions of well-being outlined in the ABA National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being "The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change."

"The report’s recommendations focus on five central themes:

  1. Identifying stakeholders and the role each of them can play in reducing the level of toxicity in the legal profession,
  2. Eliminating the stigma associated with helpseeking behaviors,
  3. Emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence,
  4. Educating lawyers, judges, and law students on lawyer well-being issues, and
  5. Taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession."

While often being a lawyer is our principal identity, we are whole persons—we are not just a person who engages in a career. Our careers and occupations are often a big part of who we are, but we are also parents, children, siblings, friends, hobbyists, exercisers, creators, and spiritual pursuers (one that we don’t talk about in law very much.) I was struck by the wisdom in this diagram from the initial ABA Task Force Report which expresses this so well:

You will see that our Lawyer Well-Being Week activities are coded with icons from this diagram.

Our Red Mug Coffee Circle will meet on Monday at noon. It is a primarily social group but we will be talking about occupational issues and will be engaging in continuous learning because I am going to mention some findings from the National Study, so perhaps it could also be tagged with occupational and intellectual icons? If you are curious about this little group that we host every week, please drop in and join us—everyone is welcome, and if we end up with more participants than can effectively communicate on a single Zoom screen, we will break out into smaller groups!

On Tuesday, we are hosting our regular Mindfulness session at 12 via Zoom. We gather together, so it is social (but you can turn your screen off for the mindfulness time.) But it is also related to our emotional well-being and our spiritual selves. No experience is necessary—our yogi-lawyer leader will take you step by step through a breathing, mindfulness, or visualization activity. If you are feeling less social but are curious, you can enter the group with your camera off and you can choose an alias like Shy but Curious in lieu of your name.

Wednesday is yoga day at Assist. If you work in the downtown core in Calgary, please consider grabbing your yoga mat and walking over to Knox United Church where you can find us in the basement Parlour Room. Or you can join us online. We developed a thriving and caring community online during the work from home time, so you can enjoy social as well as physical dimensions of well-being by attending.

Did you notice that you may be able to score all six dimensions by Wednesday at 1 pm This doesn’t mean that you should give yourself mental checkmarks and forget about the rest of Lawyer Well-Being Week! Try addressing at least one dimension per day (and possibly all six).

On Thursday, our friends at CBA-Alberta are presenting Dr. Larry Krieger—whom so many of us saw and loved at the Well-Being Summit in October. Dr. Krieger, along with his wife Teresa Krieger, who currently co-teach “Lawyers as Transformational Leaders,” a course on well-being and professionalism at Florida State University College of Law, will lead us through resetting the mind-body connection, featuring both mental techniques and physical exercise! It will be occupational, intellectual, physical, and social! A great activity for lawyers prone to overachievement.

And on Friday, Assist is pleased to present one of our responses to the National Study, in which assertiveness and psychological detachments were found to have protective qualities against stress.  Assertiveness and psychological detachment are skills which can be learned, so we invited Dr. Brian Forbes, the head of our psychological services provider, to help us learn what these skills are and how to develop them. Cal Johnson, KC, will share his wisdom about how lawyers can deploy these skills within their workplaces in a constructive manner in a legal workplace. Intellectual because of skills development, but also social because we are a friendly group, and this session may enhance your occupational well-being.

Edmontonians—we are sorry that we haven’t been able to source a lawyer-yogi to teach an Edmonton in-person yoga class. But if you are looking for a social and perhaps emotionally enriching activity, Players De Novo, a theatre group of lawyers and judges, are presenting Laughing Stock on Friday, May 5th—an excellent way to cap off Lawyer Well-Being Week!

Whether you choose to observe Canadian Mental Health Week or Assist’s Lawyer Well-Being Week, there are many ways of experiencing and improving all dimensions of well-being next week. We would love to hear from you with ideas of what we could build in for next year, and we are setting up our Walks for Wellness in September—a great social, physical, and occupational experience—and would love to have more volunteers in all Alberta communities.

Lawyer Well-Being Week is May 1-5th this year, but every day is Lawyer Well-Being Day at Assist.