By Hamizah Manshor, Pupil Barrister, Yusof Halim & Partners
The tenth day of October marks the day we commemorate what is regarded as the World Mental Health Day to raise mental health awareness. In 2022, the theme was to ‘Make Mental Health and Wellbeing for All a Global Priority.’ As I write this article in the month of October 2022, it would be the perfect opportunity to shed some light on the matter in the legal profession.
I am currently in my 6th month of pupillage; in fact, I can be considered an infant in this very profession I call work and would like to base my article off my personal experience and opinion.
I was born and raised in Brunei, a not-so-big country enriched with long cultural traditions and hidden gems. Only at the age of eighteen, I left home to pursue my dreams in the United Kingdom. To date, I am a pupil in Yusof Halim and Partners; a dream that I proudly turned into a reality. The same girl whose inner voices told her to throw her dream away, whose voice, had grown even louder when I was diagnosed with clinical depression at the crack of dawn in law school. A weakness I thought that would hinder my future; an invisible ‘illness’ that is heavily stigmatised especially in Asia, a fear seemingly of the mentally ‘ill.’ I understand now what I could not comprehend then that it’s okay not to be okay; there is no shame nor fear shall arise from it.
THE LEGAL INDUSTRY
The legal industry is known for its fast-paced environment filled with demanding workload, competitive job market and professional pressure. Stress and poor work life balance within the profession is unavoidable. For most however, excessive, and unhealthy stress levels can increase the negative effect on one’s mental health. A study conducted by the International Bar Association (IBA) showed that legal professionals are prone to suffer greater risk of mental health problems compared to the general population due to the nature of the profession. Findings from LawCare demonstrated that a staggering 69% of lawyers has/is suffering from mental health problems with the prominence of anxiety and depression. In Asia there is a perception that mental health conditions are prevalent; however, it is often swept under the rug. The question then is, with the increasing number of individuals within the legal profession suffering from mental health conditions; why have the majority yet to seek help or speak out in regard to the issue?
THE LEGAL PROFESSION
The legal profession is deemed to be a prestigious and esteemed career where it is well respected and highly regarded in society. It is undeniable that mental health awareness has grown over the past years; the stigma that lingers around it however still persists within the legal profession. This has discouraged individuals from speaking out or seeking the help they need for their mental health. A recent data from the IBA showed that 41% of the respondents ‘would not discuss their mental health concerns with their employer out of fear for detrimental consequences to their career’ while 32% feared being discriminated if they were to disclose their mental health.
The journey to becoming a lawyer is long and difficult with countless years reading and studying the law. Many would set aside and endure their mental health due to the number of years it took them to get to where they currently are. Every year a fresh batch of graduates would enter the field seeking employment; a hard pill to swallow is that everyone is viewed as being disposable, employers can easily find a replacement for their ‘ill’ employee.
In Asia, it’s a near impossible task for the legal professionals to divulge the topic of mental health as it is seen as a ‘weakness and a loss of face’ within the community. The simple explanation behind the aforesaid stigma is due to the Asian culture, traditional and religious beliefs. The culture that is embedded by honour, pride, and collectivism thus having a mental health condition brings weakness and shame to the family. Further, some Asian families view mental conditions as a ‘punishment’ by religious belief and claim that one should ‘pray and have more faith’ to fix one’s mental conditions. These are the reasons as to why many would rather suffer in silence to avoid social disapproval.
Based on the foregoing, the stigmatisation on mental health is still prominent within the legal profession globally. The persistent stigma on mental conditions in the legal profession has increased individuals to resort to other coping mechanisms i.e., substance abuse, alcoholism, and committing/attempting suicide.
The ignorance of the meaning of mental health has caused a widespread of misunderstanding on the subject. A study in Singapore conducted by the National Council of Social Service found that 5 out of 10 people do not want to be within distance of someone who suffers from a mental health condition. Individuals suffering from mental conditions are seen as having a character defect and labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘psychotic.’ An ‘invisible’ illness which cannot be physically seen makes it difficult for others to wrap their mind around the illness. Promoting education and awareness regarding mental health would increase society’s knowledge on mental health and would allow the stigma to be broken.
Over the recent years it is indisputable that mental health awareness has increased in the legal sector however most provide ‘lip service’ without implementing the real changes needed in the profession.
THE LAW FIRMS
As aforementioned, most individuals within the profession fear to speak out about their mental wellbeing as it may possibly be detrimental to their career. This is why it is important for those in higher position, to understand and educate themselves on the importance and significance of mental health in order to promote wellbeing within the organisation. Some changes law firms can imply to safeguard the mental wellbeing of legal professionals are to:-
- Allow individuals to talk about mental health openly in order to break the stigma associated with it;
- Educate and train employees to understand mental health and how to seek help;
- Practise kindness and compassion; mental health conditions are invisible, and what happens is not always obvious on the surface.
THE LEGAL PROFESSIONALS
As legal professionals it is very easy to slip into a constant cycle of excessive stress. With numerous resources online, the change they want to see may be in the palm of their hands. Some changes legal professionals can do to safeguard their own mental wellbeing are to:-
- Manage stress by whatever works for them e.g. exercise and personal care;
- Start having a habit of consistent self-care;
- Learn to recognise early signs of burnouts and excessive stress;
- Reach out for professional help if one feels like they are struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.
Mental health is just as important as physical health. The stigma on the topic continues to be a barrier for individuals to seek the care they need. We are capable of erasing the stigma by making conversations about mental health a commonplace and acceptable within the legal industry. It’s time to make mental wellbeing a global priority in the legal profession. Never judge what you don’t understand, be kind always.
Hamizah Manshor, Pupil Barrister, Yusof Halim & Partners