High levels of depression in the legal profession may be attributable to the legal working environment which, according to Professor Patrick McGorry, is still akin to a 19th century workplace.
Speaking at last week’s Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation 2010 Annual Lecture, McGorry said that while the aggravating factors behind high levels of mental ill-health in the legal profession are yet to be fully understood, he had heard plausible reasons which might provide an explanation.
"[A law firm is] a 19th century working environment. Twenty first century working environments promote autonomy, mastery and purpose. People who are mentally healthy in their work have ... freedom over the way they work, they've got a sense of mastery over what they do, they're not in an out-of-control, treadmill type situation and they've got a sense of purpose and social value," he said.
"A lot of the more creative occupational roles that are opening up these days have got these features. There is much greater flexibility ... There are obviously different ways of being a lawyer, but many of the ways don't seem to have these features."
McGorry's comments came is response to a question from Michal Kirby, patron of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, who asked whether or not issues such as the fact that lawyers are burdened with keeping other peoples' secrets, have to make difficult decisions, and are being constantly judged by their peers, could also be contributing factors.
Kirby added that he believes that all levels of the legal profession are in denial about the effects of such factors on the mental health of lawyers.
But despite his status as a leading mind in the field of mental health, which earned him the title of 2009 Australian of the Year, McGorry would not be drawn into the specifics of mental ill-health in the legal profession, instead making it clear that mental ill-health affects all levels of society.
"Mental ill-health is very common in society ... we've all got about a 50 per cent chance of experiencing a period of mental ill-health at some point, from mild to severe. It is unrealistic to think that you could get through life without having to have some physical health care ... it is also unrealistic to think that you could do that in a mental health sense," he said.
"Mental health is all around us. It is everywhere. You've got to look around you, look for it, and give it the possibility to express itself, because then people have got somewhere to go. We can nip these things in the bud. If it is seen as a weakness and something that people can't talk about ... then people have nowhere to go."
It is for reasons such as this that has prompted the R U OK? Day 2010http://www.ruokday.com.au/ which aims to prevent small issues around stress, depression and anxiety becoming larger and more significant by simply having people ask others they may be concerned about; ‘Are you OK?’ R U OK? At Work focuses on the work environment and colleagues looking out for each other.
Gareth Bennett, HR director at law firm Freehills is a strong supporter of R U OK? Day.
“It’s often the simplest ideas that are the best,” he said. “R U OK day is a very simple way to make a difference. The idea is to look around your colleagues and friends and take a second to ask them how they are doing and get a conversation going. It builds on our whole resilience at law approach.”
R U OK? Day will be held on Thursday 7th October, 2010.