Mentorship, Mental Health and the Legal Profession

"Cracking the brain's memory codes" by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is marked with CC PDM 1.0
This is an image of brain. “Cracking the brain’s memory codes” by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Among the professions, the legal profession is listed near the top of when it comes to professions with a high-rate of mental illness. There are many reasons for this. Chief among them is the legal profession’s culture.

In Darena Muça’s article, “Elevated Incidence of Mental Illness in the Legal Profession” published in the McGill Journal of Law and Health, the statistics and the factors contributing to mental illness in the legal profession aren’t surprising.

In the Canadian Bar Association (CBA)  2012 Survey of Lawyers on Wellness Issues prepared by Ipsos, which Muça cites, the statistics are grimly familiar. Taking a closer look at the 2012 report, the statistics facing self-identifying women lawyers are particularly concerning.

  • 66% of women lawyers have personally confronted “stress and/or burnout” compared to 48% of male lawyers.
  • 56% of women lawyers expressed having dealt with anxiety issues compared to 39% of male lawyers.
  • 42% of women lawyers identified having personally confronted emotional distress compared with 21% of men.

The focus of Muça’s article is on how working disproportionately long hours,  the pressured environment, the profession’s culture and work-life balance issues contribute to the high rate of mental illness within the legal profession.

After reviewing the literature, Muça’s conclusion that a multitude of factors contributes to mental health issues within the legal profession is not surprising.

She recommends that “a shift within the legal profession regarding the way personal and professional challenges are addressed would help to prevent the deterioration of mental health of both current and future attorneys.”  Muça’s key recommendation is yet another call to action.  

Signs of Change within the Canadian Legal Profession

For generations, the mental health challenges faced by lawyers, articling students and law students were kept in the shadows. It was known but not discussed. Leaving lawyers, articling students and law students to suffer alone. Thankfully, this is changing.

More and more lawyers, articling students, law students and the legal profession as a whole are shedding light on the unique mental health challenges of the legal profession. They are opening up spaces to discuss the legal profession’s impact on mental health.

  • In 2016, the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) Mental Health Strategy Taskforce put forth a mental health strategy to begin de-stigmatizing mental health issues within the profession.
  • The Canadian Bar Association’s “Law Needs Well-Being Because…” national photo campaign is an example of how the legal profession is working to bring the importance of well-being within the profession to the forefront.

Increasingly, law schools are also leading the way in helping law students address mental health issues before they enter the profession.

  • Canadian law schools have partnered with Just Balance to promote well-being and offer law students resources.  
  • In 2019, the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Common Law Section began its Wellness Mentor-in-Residence program with Orlando Da Silva, who holds weekly office hours . Additionally, the Faculty of Law, Common Law Section has two counsellors at the law school: Equity and Student Success Counsellor and Mental Health and Wellness Counsellor.

In addition to these spaces, there is a growth in mentorship programs throughout the Canadian legal profession and in law schools.

The Role of Mentorship in Mental Health

Addressing mental health requires support. Better yet, it requires a supportive network. That’s where mentorship comes in. 

Positive mentorship, regardless of its model, makes an impact. Using a mixed-method longitudinal study, researchers looked at the benefits of formal mentorship programs on mental health in the English police force.

Researchers measured the impact of formal mentoring on the anxiety levels of senior police officer mentors. Their study, “Mentoring for Mental Health: A Mixed-Method Study of the Benefits of Formal Mentoring Programs in the English Police Force”, published in 2018, identified two areas of formal mentoring: career-related benefits and psychosocial benefits.

While psychosocial relates to the relationship between a person’s psychological behaviours and their social behaviours, in the context of mentorship this can be seen as providing support, friendship and advice. It is this benefit which links mentorship and mental health.  

In the case of  the mental health of senior officers in the English police force, there were not only positive career-related outcomes, but a lowering of work- related anxiety, increased sense of self-worth and empowerment.

Specifically,  mentors found their work more meaningful and mentees felt more empowered.

The study identified three common themes:

  • mentoring provided a “unique context and space for the discussion of personal anxieties and concerns” (Gill, Roulet and Kerridge 24);
  • sharing of mental health information and self-management tools; and,
  • increased sense of meaning related to the mentor’s work (24).

Although Gill, Roulet and Kerridge’s study focused on senior police officers in England, their work sheds light on the overall connection between mentorship and mental health.

Positive Legal Mentorship as a Tool in Addressing Mental Health

The legal profession is challenging and intense. Research shows the negative impact on lawyers, articling students and law students’ mental health resulting from a number of factors including the profession’s culture.

Effectively addressing mental health within the legal profession will take multiple mental health resources and tools.

However, positive legal mentorship is one tool that may help.  Through positive formal mentoring, legal mentors and mentees create a framework and space to talk about the mental health challenges facing them.

Also, within this space and by working together, legal mentors and mentees can share mental health strategies and resources. As well, both legal mentors and mentees may experience a renewal or a deeper sense of meaning within their career.

While there is no single panacea when it comes to addressing the legal profession’s mental health challenges, positive legal mentoring is a powerful tool in tackling the mental health challenges within the profession.

Author: Charlotte Wolters is the Founder of the Women’s Legal Mentorship Program (WLMP) and is a regular guest contributor to the WLMP’s blog.

The Women’s Legal Mentorship Program (WLMP) accepts articles for publication on its blog. If you want to get involved in the WLMP or would like to contribute an article to the WLMP’s blog, contact us.

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