Stressed out? There’s help for that
Madeleine Tyber is busy. She is articling with the Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company (LawPRO) and balancing her workload with family, hobbies and other personal commitments. Like many, she wonders how new lawyers can manage the stress of making it all work.
The mentor: Doron Gold, Toronto psychotherapist and former family lawyer
The mentee: Madeleine Tyber, articling student with the Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company (LawPRO)
Across the table at Planta in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood, Doron Gold, a Toronto psychotherapist and a former family lawyer, delivers some good news: there is plenty lawyers can do to protect their mental health. And there’s help available.
Unfortunately, he adds, lawyers are less likely to seek help than the average person. That’s despite the fact that stressors from practising law result in higher rates of anxiety, depression and addiction.
Good mental health, Gold advises, starts with being true to yourself. “Don’t fit yourself into the law, fit the law into you. You’re in the legal profession because you want to be and there are things in it you want to do. You don’t owe anyone anything other than your best based on what your proclivities are. So the more authentic you can be, probably the more effective you’re going to be too.”
Lawyers should determine their priorities and goals first, he adds. “Where do you see yourself? What would it take to get there? Are the sacrifices necessary to get there sacrifices you’re willing to make?” Whether it’s a partnership at a big firm or becoming a top criminal lawyer, “sometimes doing things early in your career that are a little out of balance towards work may be the price one pays to get the ultimate prize they want in the profession.”
Many lawyers love their work and clock many hours doing it, but Gold says they should try to have balance in their lives to avoid burnout. They need to prioritize eating properly, exercising, sleeping well, having social support, friends and taking vacations to protect themselves from stress. “There is no working 100 hours a week, sleeping two hours a night, never taking a vacation and being happy. I don’t think it’s humanly possible.”
Another way to enjoy a balanced life is to avoid harmful substances like alcohol and marijuana, which Gold says many lawyers use. He knows lawyers who use marijuana daily to deal with stress and consider it “medicine for getting through the day.” Unfortunately, he adds, the “things that we use to help ourselves end up making it worse.”
He advises young lawyers to periodically do a personal audit and line it up with short- and long-term goals: “Is what I’m doing right now what I want to do, or is it just kind of where I ended up? I always have the choice to change direction.”
Gold strongly recommends practising mindfulness by meditating or doing yoga, which help reduce anxiety and depression. The more time you can spend being here right now, the more you hedge against things like anxiety and depression,” he says.
But sometimes lawyers need professional help. In his work as a therapist, Gold sees many lawyers, judges, law students and paralegals who are dealing with mood disorders or addictions. Most people who go into law tend to be perfectionists with very high standards and believe they’re failures if they have a problem. They find it embarrassing to be vulnerable, so they don’t reach out for help.
But these are generally treatable conditions, says Gold, and there’s plenty of help available. Lawyers’ assistance programs are offered in every province – a simple click on the Wellness section of the CBA website can put them in touch with help.
Tyber wonders about the best way to help friends or colleagues who appear to be distressed. Gold recommends reaching out right away and showing simple kindness. “Show empathy and possibly send them an email with a link to the local lawyer assistance program website. It’s a gentle message that lets them know the way they’re acting is noticeable.”
People can get stuck in a job that doesn’t suit them but they can’t see a way out and it causes distress. Depression is often caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain but “sometimes people are depressed because their life sucks,” says Gold. “Going to a therapist doesn’t mean you’re sick; it just means you want to talk.”