Mental health could be defined as a person’s emotional, psychological and social well-being. And it is a concept that is the order of the day. Finally. The field of mental health has always been stigmatised and made invisible, mainly due to popular ignorance. It is only now that society is accepting that anxiety, stress or depression are not ‘a madman’s disease’, but illnesses that can be suffered by people who do not necessarily have to be mentally unbalanced.
This change of vision in society is still an evolving process. Despite this, it is still common for someone to worry if you tell them you are going to a psychologist, or to not understand exactly what depression or anxiety is and make comments about it downplaying its importance, when mental health care is just as important as physical health care.
What are stress and anxiety?
Firstly, it should be emphasised that feeling these on a particular occasion does not imply that one should seek professional help, as they are a natural response of the brain to danger, keeping the person alert to cope with it.
Stress, first and foremost, is a short-term feeling or sensation in response to a recognised threat. Related symptoms are low mood, feeling overwhelmed, unhappiness, intrusive thoughts, etc. This stress can be positive at specific times, especially when extra energy is needed: meeting a deadline, fleeing danger or being alert. The body releases a series of hormones as a defence that allows the person in question to perform at 120% when needed. This is defined as acute stress, which helps to maintain control over strange or dangerous situations. However, when this stress is repeated in a considered manner, it is known as chronic stress. This type of stress can cause health problems, such as high blood pressure, skin problems or heart failure.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a feeling of unease or nervousness about something that has not yet happened, or may not even happen. This is why the anxiety is more prolonged over time and why the trigger is not so identifiable. The main symptoms are tension, nervousness or a feeling of uneasiness. The same thing happens with this sensation as with stress: we experience it as our brain’s response to an unknown situation in order to protect us from a dangerous situation. If the anxiety is repeated in an uncontrolled way, it is called an anxiety disorder and leads to loss of appetite, rapid breathing, trembling, etc.
What is depression?
On the other hand, and it goes hand in hand with the other two mental health problems mentioned above, is depression. It can be described as a subjective experience of discomfort manifested by affective, behavioural, cognitive, etc. symptoms. These often manifest themselves in the form of loss of pleasure, apathy, appetite disturbances, tendencies towards isolation and even suicidal thoughts.
It is treated through psychotherapy, offering reassurance, understanding and emotional support, and pharmacological treatment, using anxiolytics and antidepressants to alleviate the more severe symptoms of depression.
Lawyers: the professionals most likely to suffer from depression
Let us apply this data to the world of law. Lawyers lead the ranking of the most depressed professionals, with alarming figures such as one in three contemplating suicide at least once a year and 30% suffering from clinically detected depression. Anhedonia, which is the inability to find pleasure or satisfaction in things that normally provoke it, or dysthymia, which could be classified as a minor depression, at a lower level, but on a chronic basis, are very common symptoms in lawyers who are detected with this mental health problem.
And why is it so prevalent in the legal profession? Tolerance of working under pressure is one of the factors that is valued positively in the private legal sector. It is emphasised by the firms that hire them that ‘a good lawyer has to be prepared for the attack and foresee the future to identify future problems that may rock your world’.
This is one of the reasons why stress and anxiety can be so prevalent in this profession, in addition to the long working hours, the unattainable goals, the pressure, etc. Add to this the fact that mental health problems are quite stigmatised, especially in a conservative environment such as the legal profession, and there is the issue of feeling discriminated against for asking for help.
Stigma in the legal profession
Stigma is understood as a negative feeling of social exclusion towards a person or group of people who share specific characteristics, usually related to a disease or social characteristic that is not shared with social norms.
In this particular case it has to do with the feeling of undervaluation. According to a survey conducted by the Dave Nee Foundation, 64% of law students do not seek medical help because they fear that this could have negative consequences for their careers. The conclusion is that a person with mental health problems is considered weak or incapable of defending the interest of a citizen and/or a company. This is nothing more than a consequence of social prejudice, which has no solid basis whatsoever and only conditions professionals suffering from this type of problem not to ask for help. This only causes legal professionals suffering from such mental health problems to dig themselves deeper into the hole and fail to get out, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Practitioners such as Patrick Krill argue that the consequences of lawyers suffering from this problem not only affect the legal world but ‘spill over into other areas, from the functioning of the state economy to (…) the civil rights and property of citizens’. Moreover, he insists that the impact on society is of enormous size, which has not been recognised or evaluated.
To get an idea, we can consult the Study on the Health and Well-being of the Spanish Legal Profession, carried out by the Mental Health Institute of the Legal Profession and Lefebvre. It shows that 81% of the lawyers interviewed sleep less than recommended by the National Sleep Foundation, that 82% would prefer to be paid less and be able to spend more time in private life and that 83.5% consider stress to be a very high risk.
The solution? Breaking the stigma
According to Manel Atserias, mental health activist and founder of the Mental Health Institute of Lawyers, one of the key points to end this stigma is to give visibility to a subject that until relatively recently was taboo, especially in the world of law.
Through activities by institutional advocacy as well as non-profit organisations, legal professionals should be encouraged to empower themselves and be able to explain how they feel without fear of reprisals. Appearances by professionals in traditional media or awareness campaigns with the aim of encouraging people to seek professional help are steps that help to bring to light and give visibility to these problems, which will lead to an improvement in well-being and a humanisation of the profession.
A legal professional is more productive if he or she works happily and feels free to express his or her feelings than someone who works longer hours and suffers from burnout syndrome. In the Anglo-Saxon world we talk about ‘good for business, good for clients and the right thing to do’.