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Opinion: We can’t remain silent about legal professionals’ mental health

The 'invincible warrior' image and demanding work environment contribute to a hidden crisis
New book by legal experts aims to normalize mental health struggles

Almost 60 per cent of legal professionals in Canada are experiencing psychological distress and burnout. Approximately one in three are experiencing depression and anxiety. One in four have had suicidal thoughts, and one in five are at worrying levels of drug and alcohol abuse, according to a national study on the psychological health determinants of legal professionals in Canada from the Canadian Bar Association, Federation of Law Societies of Canada and Université de Sherbrooke.

Perhaps not surprisingly, articling students, junior lawyers, women, the LGBTQ+ community and minorities are impacted the most by these statistics.

In the early years of my practice, one of my colleagues tried to kill himself due to his drug and alcohol abuse. Another lawyer, one of the most brilliant lawyers I knew, left the profession due to depression and applied for dishwashing jobs. I watched many of my colleagues burn out and leave promising careers to have families.

My own anxiety and imposter syndrome reached new heights—to the point that I felt I was a fake, a sham, undeserving of what I had achieved. I wanted to disappear.

Throughout these journeys, all of us mostly felt alone. 

When I began speaking up about my mental health journey, I was stunned by the outpouring of support I received from lawyers who related to my story and shared their own stories privately. Almost all of them said they, too, felt alone.

They were afraid of ever speaking about it because lawyers are supposed to be the invincible warriors of a chosen profession, privileged and lucky enough to practice the art of law and have higher-than-average incomes. To change law, change lives, change the way our societies are even run. We are lawyers. There is a sense of pride in saying that. And we are not supposed to act sad or be ungrateful for it. 

But as the statistics show, many of us are feeling broken inside. We are vulnerable and fragile, yet are a part of a profession that can shame or treat us as failures for being so. Law is a profession known for cultivating mental health challenges through its standards, rigidity and conservatism.

We need to talk about that.

In May, 18 legal professionals—including judges, prominent professors, partners at Bay Street and boutique firms, lawyers from across the country and me—published a book on their own personal mental health journeys.

These individuals are leaders within the legal profession and together chose to write the book to kill the stigma around mental health. They encourage all to talk, accept mental health as a real but workable issue, and to change what is changeable in the legal profession: Its culture. 

The book, titled The Right Not to Remain Silent: The Truth About Mental Health in the Legal Profession and published by LexisNexis, has 18 chapters of real-life stories that deal with a variety of mental challenges, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, addiction, grief, eating disorders and more.

Most importantly, it has useful suggestions regarding how to deal with mental health challenges as we navigate them within our personal and professional lives.

Some of the authors attempted suicide multiple times in the past, yet hold some of the most powerful legal positions in the country. There is an author who became an addict; a lawyer who dealt with losing a five-month-old child on the same day she became a partner; a young woman who developed and hid an eating disorder; and others who dealt with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. All of the authors are successful in their careers and have found ways to manage their mental health challenges.

This book is not meant to resolve mental health issues in the profession. It is meant to normalize and show that living with mental disorders does not mean we are failures. To the contrary, it means we are brave, resilient and courageous.

All royalties from the sale of the book are being donated to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Leena Yousefi is a multi-award-winning family lawyer, and the founder and CEO of YLaw. The Right Not to Remain Silent can be purchased online. Those who cannot afford the book may request a free copy by emailing [email protected].