Dealing with mental health issues as a lawyer in a town where (almost) everyone knows your name

Goderich lawyer Michael Ferguson says opening up has helped him thrive

Dealing with mental health issues as a lawyer in a town where (almost) everyone knows your name
Goderich lawyer Michael Ferguson

Looking back at his youth, Goderich, Ontario lawyer Michael Ferguson realizes that he probably was struggling with depression and other mental health issues long before he went to university, then law school, and later as a member of the bar.

“In hindsight, I think I was depressed as a younger child,” says Ferguson, noting that before he started high school, he had to deal with a grandmother and uncle dying and his mother getting cancer, all within a couple of years. That probably was the start of a “general sense of dread about the world,” Ferguson says, though he admits he “probably wasn’t self-aware enough” to realize what was happening. Academically inclined, he succeeded at school and assumed that “most people” felt like he did.

He doesn’t blame law school or the profession for causing his depression and anxiety, but it “certainly didn’t lessen” the problem. After graduating with a degree in political science from the University of Ottawa and obtaining his law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, Ferguson was called to the bar in 2019. Towards the end of law school, when most prospective lawyers were thinking about where they would land, it was particularly hard mental-health-wise for Ferguson, but he soldiered on. 

As a lawyer in a small town (Goderich has a population of about 8,000), to the outside world, he was diligent in his legal work: real estate, wills and estate planning, powers of attorney, estate administration, and landlord and tenant law were his preferred areas of practice. But on the inside, life was sometimes unbearable. The 31-year-old Goderich practises at Norman B. Pickell Lawyers and Mediators.

“It got to the point where I dreaded every day, every minor task,” he says, and as a young lawyer, he still had lots to learn. “It’s a profession that can have strict deadlines and involve cases dealing with lots of money - so you don’t want to screw up.”

The stress got to the point where it caused Ferguson’s blood pressure to rise. But the silver lining also got him thinking about his mental health as a medical issue, allowing him to realize that “maybe I didn’t have to feel that way” and that medication could help.

Ferguson also concluded that while there is a particular culture and circumstances of law that could exacerbate his anxiety and depression, “I realized I would be dealing with it regardless of what the job was.”

However, the turning point, he says, was the Law Society of Ontario putting together its first annual health summit in 2021. “It was perfect timing for me.” 

Listening to experts and people discussing mental health issues “made me realize that I wasn’t the only one, that many successful people in the law and elsewhere were also dealing with some of the same things I was - and that was inspiring.”

While the legal profession still has a long way to go in addressing mental illness and how to best help lawyers, events such as the summits (the fourth was held in May) have given a voice to those suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. More discussion, Ferguson hopes, will lead to more than just talking about mental health in the legal profession, with more programs, benefits and policy changes to create a healthier mental environment for lawyers.

That realization allowed Ferguson to open up to his employer about what he was going through, and he received much support. Medication and cognitive behavioural therapy have also been helpful. “All these things probably saved my life. I started not waking up every morning with that sense of intense dread and began to address some of the root causes.”

Ferguson also learned to acknowledge there were things he could do within his law practice to accommodate his mental health. “I have fairly bad insomnia, so one of the things I have changed is not to take appointments in the morning because I don’t know how much sleep I will have had the night before.” Ferguson says his employer and those he works with have been “extremely accommodating” to his schedule.

He adds that working more from home has also been helpful, especially as a parent to two small children, adding that a post-COVID world has made WFH more acceptable.

Ferguson has also written a chapter for a recently published book on mental health and lawyers, “The Right Not to Remain Silent: The Truth About Mental Health in the Legal Profession.” His portion, “Practising Openness Where Everyone Knows Everyone,” gives a personal and professional perspective on handling mental health issues openly in a small-town setting.

The book can be purchased at LexisNexis, with all proceeds donated to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

His chapter delves into the challenges faced by professionals in rural areas, where personal and professional lives often intersect, and the fear of gossip and professional backlash can magnify the pressure on those dealing with mental health issues.

In his chapter, he writes: 

I feared that if people did not understand mental illness and made assumptions about   how it impacts my competence as a lawyer, then I may get fewer referrals or calls  from prospective clients. Additionally, I feared that other lawyers may think they can take advantage of my presumed weakness. To what degree these risks are real or  simply perceived, I do not know…. It may be too early to feel the consequences. But  so far, I have felt none of the negative consequences that I had feared. The phone still  rings, and colleagues treat me no differently than before.

“It was very cathartic to write, “Ferguson says, adding, “It really helped me just to put together a whole bunch of thoughts that I had not clearly laid out before.” Writing it in a way others could understand “really allowed me to gain some insights into myself and has been quite therapeutic.” 

Being open about his mental health has also made Ferguson, a board member with the Huron County Chamber of Commerce, realize that as much as gossip can move quickly in small towns, “there’s also a feeling of people wanting to take care of their own. So, the experience has been largely positive. For all the fears I’ve had, almost none of them have happened.”

Ferguson also says he often rereads the chapter he wrote: “Whenever I feel any sort of regret or sadness, it helps, and I think if what I wrote helps even one other person, I have done something valuable.”

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