Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

News & Events

The Great Return: You Don't Have To Do It Alone

The clock is ticking down to The Great Return!

Many of us will be transporting our dual monitors, ergonomic chairs and laptops or desktops downtown on or before Monday, April 4th, a common return date for displaced office workers. People who regularly use transit may be driving since managing a rolling chair on buses or trains sounds scary, but so does parking downtown after a two-year absence. The first day will involve greeting many colleagues who have existed as postage stamp-sized images on Zoom screens along with trouble shooting the myriad of IT issues that will inevitably arise when thousands of people plug in to their office systems for the first time in two years.

Assist’s three staffers will be among those participating in the Great Return on Monday, rejoining our kind friends at JSS Barristers who are also returning that day. We hope that our transition goes smoothly, but in case you need to reach us, here are a few ways you can reach us just in case our systems melt down:

Loraine Champion 1-587-779-7205
Eileen Lesko 1-587-779-7200
Bao-Hoa Hong 1-857-779-7203
Professional Counselling Services 1-877-498-6898
Peer Support 1-877-737-5508

Because I want my staff to have a clear line between work and outside work, I am only providing my personal cell phone number and email address. Please call or email me if you have any difficulties reaching us.

How are you feeling about returning to the office?

I know many lawyers, largely in smaller firms, who were able to return to work at their offices relatively early in the pandemic, but many other lawyers working for government,  corporations and in larger firms have been home-based for two years. I will be having my fourth anniversary as Assist’s Executive Director in May, and half of my tenure will have occurred in the remote work environment.

And things will be changing for firms where lawyers were able to return earlier as well, with more staff returning to in-office operations. This will mean more interruptions and more exposure to people just as a new variant is circulating.

Most of us are having mixed reactions, looking forward to human interaction but dreading the commute and loss of flexibility. Some people have experienced enhanced productivity while working remotely and worry about the consequences of disrupting something that was working. And others will be piloting flexible work arrangements.

Wherever you fall in the Can’t Wait to Get Back to Really Dreading the Office Again continuum, please know that Assist is here for you. We can connect you with professional counselling services or with peer support. And if you are feeling anxious about the thought of the upcoming changes, please be proactive about your mental health and book a session with our counsellors.

This week, I have been thinking about how we can help lawyers with an issue that is all too common in our profession-- substance use—after reading an article in Canadian Lawyer  titled “What is the Real Cost of Employee Substance Abuse?

We have all heard that people are drinking more alcohol, and using more cannabis and illegal drugs, during the extended closure of our society. According to recent survey results released this week by the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20% of Albertan survey respondents reporting having increased their consumption of substances, significantly higher than the national average of 13%.

Legal culture doesn’t have healthy alcohol use norms either. A recent American study of binge drinking by occupational group found that workers in the legal occupation group had one of the highest binge drinking prevalence estimates (23.9%), but a lower than average binge drinking frequency (41.4 episodes/year), intensity (6.4 drinks/binge),and therefore, lower total binge drinks per binge.

So, lawyers tend towards heavy drinking, and Albertans are drinking (or using other substances) more than other Canadians. How are Alberta lawyers  who have become reliant on substances going to manage their return to work?

Some people whose consumption is casual may be able to adjust their usage to fit with business norms (i.e., not during business hours!) without assistance. The Canadian Lawyer article states that 46% of individual misusing substances are able to manage their consumption without professional or peer assistance. The statement, attributed to an American health care provider but not accompanied by a citation to a research study, also states that, for these people who can change their behaviour, “it doesn’t lead into full-blown addiction,” (i.e., they do not yet have the disease of alcoholism.)

I was surprised by the statement that 46% of individuals misusing substances can address these issues on their own, but this is because there are levels of  substance misuse that are not at the disease level, and we have to keep this distinction in mind. Do not be lulled into thinking that about half of people with substance use disorders (what we used to call addiction) can manage on their own, not needing professional or peer assistance. The disease model of substance use disorders involves professional treatment as well as abstinence even though some individuals are able to conquer substance use disorder on their own believe without assistance—because of support and relapse prevention therapy.

I did some quick research and learned that while the Canadian Lawyer article used the term “substance misuse” in the context of the percentage of individuals who  can get better on their own, the 2017 being used the term “alcohol or other drug (AOD) problem resolution."

 I’m just a lawyer and not a medical doctor or an addictions counsellor and my eyes glaze over when I try to read statistical methodology, so I can’t help with the diagnostic criteria or the nuances surrounding slight differences in terminology. But let’s just be clear that it can be dangerous to conclude that half of all people having an issue with their consumption of alcohol or other drugs can, and should, recover on their own, as we know that many individuals diagnosed with substance use disorder will need assistance—both professional and peer-based—to recover.

Indeed, the 2017 study notes, not surprisingly, that “assisted pathway use is associated with greater severity” confirming the obvious, that people who use substances but do not have substance use disorders can perhaps modify their behaviour on their own, while people who have substance use disorders likely need support.

If you are concerned about your use of substances during the protracted pandemic, please don’t assume that you can or should conquer your issues alone. Assist is here for you, and we urge you to discuss  your consumption use and patterns with one of Assist’s professional counsellors  (or perhaps with your physician). We would all want to be in the 46% who are able to resolve our issues without external assistance, but all 100% of individuals with alcohol and drug issues cannot be in the 46% who can do it alone. And remember that denial is a fellow traveler of substance use disorder.

Assist’s counsellors can assess your substance use and make referrals to helpful resources, including treatment centres where appropriate. And we can connect you with a supportive community of twelve step lawyers who will walk with you on your recovery journey. Just because 46% of individuals can manage their substance use back to an acceptable level doesn’t mean that they have to do it alone.

The most common supports identified in the 2017 study used by the 54% of individuals who accessed assistance were mutual help (like our twelve step lawyer communities and Assist’s peer support program), treatment and recovery support services. Let Assist be your gateway to getting help.

One other important statement from the Canadian Lawyer article is that only about 10% of individuals who struggle with substance use issues voluntarily seek help. Assist, in Alberta and supporting the legal profession, aims to raise this percentage.

Research about mental health and substance use issues among lawyers indicate that there are two primary reasons that lawyers do not seek help:

  • Not wanting others to know they needed help
  • Concerns about privacy or confidentiality

So, lawyers are concerned about others finding out that they are getting help and that their confidentiality will be violated. Here’s what I can tell you about Assist:

  • Counselling went virtual during the early days of the pandemic. A small number of counsellors in Assist’s office are in their offices one or two days per week to see clients in person, but more than 90% of our counselling appointments are being conducted virtually. This means you don’t have to worry that someone you know will see you going into a counsellor’s office—you can shut your office door (consider posting a note saying you are on a Zoom call and are not to be disturbed, which is likely to be a good practice going forward) and log in to your counselling session.
  •  Counselling through Assist is confidential. You book your appointments directly with our counselling office, overseen by a registered psychologist in compliance with his profession’s confidentiality duties (similar to lawyers’) and then directly with the counsellor you are seeing. No one in my side of the Assist operation knows the identity of individuals using Assist’s counselling services—appointments are billed using a confidential 4-digit numerical code assigned to you, and that is all we see. And remember that I am a lawyer, too, so your interactions with me are subject to our Code of Conduct. Learn more about our confidentiality commitment.  
  • Peer support is similarly confidential because our volunteers are trained in the application of our duties pursuant to our Code of Conduct. We do not keep records about lawyers who call us or email us to ask questions. And while our offices (except for counselling service) are housed in a quiet corner of JSS Barristers’ office, we do not see any individuals there.
  •  Assist does not disclose confidential information to the Law Society. We report on aggregate and anonymized data and not on individuals accessing treatment. As mentioned above, I don’t know the identities of the individuals seeking help or details about any treatments or therapies they are receiving so I can’t report on it, but it would be a breach of my professional obligations to do this, and I take my professional duties seriously.  

And in addition to Albertans’ substance use being higher than the national average, the Canadian Mental Health Association monitoring study also indicates that Albertans had the highest levels of feeling stressed (39%), angry (39%), lonely or isolated (27%) or sad (30%) among Canadians.
You are not alone if you are feeling stressed, angry, lonely, or isolated, or sad. Given the magnitude of issues being reported in our province, you are part of a large group, and stigma seems to be less prevalent. The pandemic has, in its own inimitable way, made it okay to not be okay, and if you are not okay about not being okay, please consider meeting with a counsellor. It’s confidential and free—and your mental health is worth an hour of your time, even if you are busy at work.
Sure, you might be able to tough it out on your own if you feel depressed or anxious, and you may be able to curb your drinking or other substance use issue alone, but why do it alone and without support when we are here to help?
At Assist, we are concerned that only 10% of people struggling with substance use issues might, as the Canadian Lawyer article states, “ever raise their hand and go get help.” Our goal is to reach the other 90% of members of the legal community struggling with substance use issues, and to reach 100% of our population facing mental health challenges.
Please help us get our message out. If you are concerned for yourself, please book a session with our professional counsellors. If you are worried about someone else, check out our online resource “How to Help Someone,” or you can meet with one of our counsellors for assistance in supporting someone else.
When I worked in-house, corporate safety programs used the slogan “Zero is real” to support the concept that it was possible to have zero safety incidents in industrial environments. I would like us to aspire to “Zero is real” in terms of having zero Alberta lawyers, articling students and law students struggling alone. Please work with me to make Zero is Real.

PS. April is National Alcohol Awareness Month in the US. The Institute of Well-Being in Law has some excellent resources in support of helping our profession curb drinking culture.