Speaker's Corner: Choir of voices needed to tackle depression in legal profession and beyond

I am a lawyer and I suffer from depression. I have pondered writing something like this for years.

I wrote about depression some 20 years ago for the Law Society Gazette. I believed those words could make some difference in the way society treated people, particularly lawyers, who endured serious depression. I was naive. I became only a curiosity in a legal carnival of professional anomalies and problematic characters.

The feedback from that article was on the lines of: “Sorry to hear about your afflictions, but they don’t apply to me.” Lawyers, other than me apparently, had some immunity from mental illness. Stereotypically, such invincibility is supposedly a good trait to have in what largely remains an adversarial legal culture.

Robin Williams was a celebrity; yet he took his life. To many, this act is incomprehensible. They wonder why notables take such extreme actions when their social status opens access to some of life’s greatest possibilities. Others wonder why the revelation of depression in prominent people stimulates so much public interest in mental-health conditions and outcomes. We have long known these conditions afflict many ordinary people. The best current estimate is that one in five Canadians will at some time suffer from a diagnosable mental illness.

But Williams’ death has now worked its way through the standard news cycles. Journalism dealing with depression and mental health has started to fade into the background of our awareness. A notable exception is the story about the struggles of Orlando Da Silva, the new president of the Ontario Bar Association.

There is a disparity between our responses to mental and physical health even though our worldview has long rejected a Cartesian separation of matter and mind. Whatever human consciousness is, it emerges from the brain. The brain is a biochemical organ, just as the heart and the lungs are, differing only in its organizational complexity. But many people, including lawyers, still respond to the appearance of mental-health issues as though they originate in some ghostly realm.

Restorative approaches to including people who have experienced depression or other mental-health issues back into the community are not yet widely available. Consider how challenging it can be to locate a residence for mentally ill people in most neighbourhoods.

We must aim for a parity of esteem for those who experience mental-health challenges and those who experience physical illness. But this parity must extend well beyond funding primary medical and limited psychological care for sufferers.

Depression is not simply a medical condition. Its reach extends far beyond the limits of pharmaceutical, psychotherapeutic, and other interventions medical science can offer. The efforts of the health-care system are extremely important. They can relieve acute distress and pull people back from the abyss. However, they often only pull a depressed person back to the precipice of hopelessness. This remains a very dangerous place. Moving back from that ledge calls for a more relational approach.

The whole community must participate in rehabilitation after a disabling depression. People with mental-health challenges should not have to force or earn their way back into the world. Society still treats experiencing a mental-health challenge as a moral failure. Many lawyers suffer heart attacks but they never have to battle to return to work. Perversely, the legal profession often regards heart attacks as badges of honour and a sign of a dedication to work beyond the call of duty.

I have lived with depression, anxiety, and, as I have recently learned, an atypical form of bipolar disorder for decades. As a result, I have lived a life of ongoing scrutiny and indefinite probation. Most people believe depression is totally disabling. Depression is often paralytic but not always so. It is often possible to manage it with good care.

Many physical illnesses and diseases now claim their public voices. Cancer speaks openly and assertively, as do diabetes and heart disease. Mental illness faces unique challenges in doing the same as it often silences voices. We need others to make its voice heard. Society should not view this as a burden. Social dialogue is not the forum for privileged individual preferences. To work well, it requires the inclusion of a multitude of voices. When mental illness renders voices absent or faint, the moral responsibility on the rest of us is to seek them out and then openly listen to and amplify them.

I suffered a heart attack shortly after my first significant encounter with depression. The physical pain of a heart attack is intense, frightening, and acute. The threshold of death is right in front of you. Depression’s pain is chronic, corrosive, and ultimately more harmful. Loved ones and caregivers bear witness to the caustic effects of depressive experience as their charges progressively withdraw from normal forms of life. For those with no access to loving people, depression petrifies inner experience and makes it more difficult to excavate a healthy life.

Stigma related to depression inflicts even more profound and chronic pain. It replicates and intensifies personal suffering and spreads it to the public world. Stigma has no shame. It treats the depressed as though they are functionally dead. They are things, not people. We do not even attempt to communicate with things.

After my first instance of serious depression, I agreed with the Law Society of Upper Canada not to practise law for a time as a sole practitioner. This was a good and pragmatic idea at the time. It was important for me not to be alone then.

I needed a job. The story about Da Silva is serendipitous. The local Crown attorney, whom I knew well, asked me if I wanted to work for him. He knew the whole history of my health. I appreciated the opportunity. I had to do an interview at the Crown law office in Toronto. When I interviewed with a young lawyer, she noted she had a friend who had also suffered from depression and one day fell down crying onto a courtroom floor. She told me the Crown, the representative of the people, could not have such people working for it. She declined to approve me. When I advised the Crown who had offered me the position about this response, he suggested I request a review from her supervisor. That individual declined to meet me or even review my application. When I inquired about what I could do next, the advice was to not complain further if I ever wanted a job in the government. This was my harsh introduction to stigma. The government that had passed and enforced human rights laws was infused with it. It is gratifying to learn that the Ministry of the Attorney General is not quite so ignorant about mental health any longer.

Stigma layers new suffering upon already-existing pain. It judges that the depressed warrant public humiliation. It seeks to drive them back down into their inner experiences and prevent them from re-emerging into the community.

I experienced another bout of challenging depression about a year ago. Depression can be cyclic, psychiatrists advise me. My work environment became challenging. I eventually requested accommodations under the Human Rights Code. I took this step reluctantly as two supervisors had advised me that I would only encounter adversarial resistance from the employer. Their prophecies were correct. My employer declined to implement all but one of the accommodations my treating health-care practitioner had recommended. I eventually had to leave that employment. Most recently, the same employer refused to approve me for a position with the private organization to which it has contracted out a large portion of its work, notwithstanding that I met all criteria for the job other than government ratification. Exclusion’s radius always increases.

Stigma spreads easily because it is not constrained by facts or attention to fairness. After leaving government work, vague rumours about my mental health began circulating within the legal world I had known. When I applied for new employment, even at firms where lawyers had invited me to work in the past, I received no response. There was no overt rejection, just the alienating cruelty and isolation of absolute silence.

Two legal recruiters recently declined to pass my resume to their clients based on my mental-health status. One recruiter advised me that a reason for his decision was he thought an epigram on my letterhead reflected mental immaturity. I actually like that epigram and have had many compliments on it. It was from Dr. Seuss. I doubt the clients of such recruiters hear or care about the people filtered out under the guise of due diligence. If law firms choose to be wilfully blind, they are complicit in the stigmatization their agents practice.

The law society has recently integrated a member services plan that includes short-term and crisis interventions for lawyers, including those with mental-health concerns. Although such programs can help, they cannot replace the peer-to-peer program it used to support. That program helped walk people back from the precipice through ongoing and caring support.

The outgoing lieutenant-governor of Ontario, David Onley, has spoken of the waste of human energy and talent that discrimination against all forms of disability generates. This waste is a public creation. By isolating and failing to actively accommodate, we harm not only those targeted by the stigma we tolerate but also our communities and professions. Onley is right in advocating for a paradigm shift away from focusing on the challenges of those with both physical and mental disabilities to a worldview that acknowledges, values, and engages the strengths of everyone.

Even though I have described some of my personal experience with depression, my challenges are not unique. Even though many others have recently and eloquently written about depression, suicide, and mental health, it is critical that more people contribute their voices to the dialogue. No matter how poignant or tragic any individual story of depression may be, it will only be a choir of voices that will bring about change.

For related content, see "New OBA head opens up about struggle with depression."

Robert Kominar is a lawyer based in Hamilton, Ont.

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