Mental health: ‘we’re not there yet,’ advocate says

One advocate for changing attitudes in the legal profession says law firms still have a long way to go.

Attitudes to mental health have come a long way in the legal profession but the issue still plagues the industry, according to one change advocate.

Former Herbert Smith Freehills managing partner and current disputes partner Peter Butler has tirelessly advocated for improvement of lawyer mental health, and in his 35 years at HSF, he’s seen a vast transition.  But he said much more work needs to be done.

“What needs to happen, and is happening I believe is a really devoted effort by each of the organisations that have decided to make those [TJMF] guidelines alive in their organisations and just continue to work on this issue,” Butler told Australasian Lawyer.

“The drivers of depression in a legal workplace are very complex and have to do with a variety of factors, ranging from stress on the one hand and accepting that many people who work in the legal profession are more prone than those who work in other professions.”

Butler was instrumental in establishing the Resilience at Law initiative, which has now grown to include over 17 law firms, aimed at revealing various ‘trade secrets’ on tackling the issue.

“While I definitely think we have made great in-roads in recognition and in making it safe for people to feel comfortable talking about issues of depression and anxiety, we’re not there yet,” he said.

“The odd thing is people feel more awkward talking about mental health type issues to someone who’s affected by issues like depression than they do talking to someone with a sore ankle.  And yet it makes such a big difference.

Programs like ‘R U OK’ day are so powerful in reminding people to talk and be supportive of one another is so important in tackling the issue he said.

“We need to accept in our profession that particularly depression and anxiety are such a big issue for us and once one realises that, that it’s not unusual or odd, then its ok I think to feel safe to reach out to someone who’s obviously feeling down or depressed and offer to help,” he said.

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