Conference notes that legal professionals are at high risk for mental health issues

I have chronicled several recent stories discussing the mental health issues faced by lawyers and judges. It is no secret that the practice of law can be a stressful job, featuring (as it does) time pressure, a sometimes-unhealthy desire for excellence at all costs, and fact patterns that often reveal humanity at its worst.

There are resources for lawyers and judges to help with some of the consequences of these pressures–be they substance abuse, anxiety, depression, or countless other mental health concerns. And increasingly, those who have experienced these conditions are finding the courage to speak about it publicly. The Daily Business Review has a good story on a recent conference that brought these issues out into the open.

Like first responders, medical professionals, and social workers, lawyers and judges often find themselves on the front lines of society’s most difficult and troubling moments. There is no shame in seeking help to relieve some of the mental burden that they carry home from those encounters.

Australian judge warns that overworked judges may contemplate suicide

In a remarkably stark assessment, New South Wales District Judge Robyn Tupman warned that docket pressure on Australia’s courts might drive some of her judicial colleagues to suicide.

Citing two recent, high-profile cases of Australian judges taking their own lives, Judge Tupman argued that a lack of resources in the courts put pressure on judges–especially newer judges–to keep up with rapidly expanding dockets. This is particularly concerning, Judge Tupman said, when docket pressure forces judges to make highly sensitive decisions under extreme time pressure. By way of example, she noted that she was scheduled to sentence seven different offenders on the day of her remarks, some of which were bound to draw significant public attention. The clear implication of her remarks was that pressure to get the sentence right was exacerbated by not having enough to time to properly consider it.

Judge Tupman described the her current caseload as “ridiculous, absurd and offensive to the people of NSW.”

Her comments follow other recent statements of concern about judicial mental health in Australia. Local bar leaders and NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman have committed to review the judge’s concerns.

 

On the mental health strains associated with judging

Years ago, in practice, I was involved in a series of cases involving allegations that a certain drug had caused infertility in women. I had to depose a number of plaintiffs who had been unable to bear children, and ask them intensely personal questions about their physical and sexual health in order to better ascertain the strength of their claims. I did my very best to handle the situation like a professional, but often the deponents would (understandably) become highly emotional during questioning. For me, an unmarried twenty-something just a few years out of law school, it was an awkward experience. Their reactions would stick with me when I went home at night.

From time to time I would ask my friends who worked as attorneys in the criminal justice system–who spent their days knee-deep in murders, sexual assaults, and various other horrible acts–how they could block those images away when they went home at night. It wasn’t easy at all, they admitted, but somehow they managed. One had to find a way to compartmentalize work and home, for one’s own mental health. And often those images and stories did haunt them at home, as much as in the workplace.

A lengthy story out of Australia keenly illustrates that judges are equally susceptible to these challenges. Six judges in Victoria talked to the Sydney Morning Herald about judicial mental health, including the judges’ environment, coping mechanisms, and (occasionally tragic) responses. As one judge put it:

“It’s been hidden, unspoken, unacknowledged and surrounded by taboo and shame for a long time,” she says. “There’s this sort of almost irreconcilable conflict between being an impartial decision-maker and being a human being who responds in a human way to what we’re doing.

“Because we’ve got to be tough [and] impartial, there’s been a concern about ‘Are you not intellectually rational enough to do the job, or are you too weak as a person if you’re responding on a personal level to other people’s trauma?’ So [there’s] the shame of saying, ‘I’m struggling, I’m finding this hard … I’m finding it hard to reconcile the human part of me with my impassive, impartial demeanour.'”

An important read for anyone involved in the administration of justice.