Two years ago, amid news of lawyer and law student suicides, I penned an article for Law Times that asked why lawyers insist upon torturing themselves. As a lawyer assistance professional, I was intent upon examining and elucidating why, despite the obvious need in the legal community for assistance with issues such as depression, anxiety, career stress, and addiction and the extensive services available across Canada to help those who were suffering, lawyers were nonetheless frustratingly hesitant to reach out. It’s now two years later, and recently I learned of another law student suicide in Ontario. How can we prevent these needless tragedies from occurring?
Everyone needs help at one time or another in life. We’re not islands no matter how self-sufficient we legal types may think we should be. If we operate on the assumption that law students, lawyers, and paralegals are indeed human beings and we know that these roles are particularly stressful and challenging, we can acknowledge the need exists for organizations that can provide help, support, and healing in times of difficulty.
Across Canada, in addition to health-care professionals such as psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers and organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association and countless hospital-based mental-health programs, there exists a network of lawyer assistance programs offering help geared directly to those in the legal community who need it.
From the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia to the Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society and the Member Assistance Program in Ontario, lawyers across the country have access to helping resources formulated specifically for their unique needs and challenges. To illustrate the types of services that are available across the country, I can personally speak to the assistance available through the Ontario program. Lawyers, paralegals, judges, law students, and immediate family members can access confidential psychotherapy for free. They have access to career and nutrition counselling, elder and childcare information, health promotion resources, and smoking cessation assistance to name just a few of the free services available. Much like many of the lawyer assistance programs in Canada, online information, courses, and videos on various topics are available. And in addition, a peer volunteer program is in place in Ontario, as well as other jurisdictions such as British Columbia, that matches individuals in need of support with volunteer legal professionals with lived experience of addiction, mental-health, and career challenges who offer their compassion and kindness in times of need.
When I stand at a booth at a legal conference touting these programs, I invariably hear the declaration: “I had no idea all of this was available.” Many
people simply don’t know that in their province or territory, help is readily accessible to them. But not knowing that such services exist isn’t the only barrier to accessing them. As I discussed in my article in 2012, even if there is awareness, there often remains a hesitance to access these services. For some, the caution relates to self-judgment and the feeling that as legal professionals, they should be strong enough to overcome their challenges on their own. They also often feel shame and stigma related to their particular issues, assuming they’re the only ones in distress among their colleagues, all of whom seem so pulled together and successful. These individuals feel they’re failing and, as such, they often suffer needlessly in silence. I use the word needlessly because, to a mental-health professional like me who has worked in lawyer assistance for eight years, my frustration comes from knowing that all they need to do is visit a web site or call a 1-800 number to begin the process of healing and recovery.
One final potential impediment to seeking assistance in the legal community is the very real concern many have about confidentiality. A lawyer whose life is unravelling due to addiction or depression needs to know whether the program will share that information with anyone, most especially whether it will wind up in the hands of their law society. The truth is that lawyer assistance programs wouldn’t exist without strict adherence to the principle that the confidentiality of clients is sacrosanct. It’s a core principle of this work and programs can’t repeat that reassurance enough. I can say that in my years of working in lawyer assistance, I’ve heard virtually every possible story you can imagine and not once have I called the regulator to share that information.
So let’s get the word out. No matter where you live in Canada, if you’re a legal professional or a law student, free, confidential help and services designed specifically for you and your unique needs and challenges are available. And it’s not just about distress. The purpose of these programs is to proactively promote wellness in the community. A healthy and fulfilled bar serves the interests of the public, the profession, and the people who populate it, not to mention their families.
So enough with stigma and suffering in silence. Enough with law student suicides when help and recovery are a mouse click or a phone call away. Let the subject of lawyer assistance come out of the shadows of our profession and let’s discuss and share it enthusiastically.
For related content, see "Choirs of voices needed to tackle depression in legal profession and beyond" and "New OBA head opens up about struggle with depression."
Doron Gold is a registered social worker who’s also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.