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On top of the world: Exploring mental health issues

|Written By Diana Ginn
On top of the world: Exploring mental health issues

With a majestic view of Halifax harbour, in the wonderful meeting space of law firm McInnes Cooper, a group of lawyers, along with a law student, a legal assistant, and a law professor, talked about conceptions and misconceptions surrounding mental health, and how to promote law practices that are healthier and more productive, both for lawyers and their clients.

But we did more than talk: “Cops in the head,” spectrum exercises, wearing a mask — all were part of a recent session on mental health led by Paul Hutchinson, a filmmaker, former director of Northern Ireland’s Corrymeela Centre, and international expert on conflict resolution.

Spectrum exercises involve participants moving around the room, positioning themselves according to their response to various questions. These exercises create a different space for encounter — we moved from behind tables to an open space.

The exercises have multiple purposes: to help participants get to know each other (“everyone who has a tattoo go to the left side of the room; the rest of you go to the right”), to start to explore the prevalence of mental health issues (“everyone who has a family member with mental illness stand on this side of the room”), and to map out various responses to conflict (“as a child, did your family respond with loud words, with silence, with something in between?”).

There were questions, comments, some poignant moments, and a fair bit of laughter as participants were encouraged to think about and share their own conceptions and misconceptions about mental health. Throughout, ways of re-conceptualizing were offered. For instance, it is more accurate (and less stigmatizing) to picture each of us moving back and forth on a continuum rather than understanding the world as made up of two distinct groups — the mentally well and the mentally unwell.

A mask was used to embody the experience of a lawyer returning to the workplace after time away for mental health reasons.

One participant — the returning lawyer — wore a mask that completely covered his face; others were unmasked. The mask represented the sense of distance and difference likely to be experienced by the returning employee; perhaps it also masked his fear and uncertainty about how he would be received by his office mates.

For the others, not being able to see their co-worker’s face symbolized not being able to discern how they should respond: Mention his absence, and express support? Pretend it never happened? Give an unnaturally hearty welcome?

The session proposed that this shouldn’t be left to chance. A workplace should develop a corporate response on how to best re-integrate the returning employee.

Cops in the head involved two participants role-playing, with the others observing and commenting.

The scenario: A client experiencing mental health issues is meeting with her lawyer. As the appointment proceeded, each of the role-players was encouraged to share what was going on in his or her head — the thoughts, fears, questions, emotions, and internal conflicts that are usually left unexpressed.

It quickly became evident that the client’s at times unco-operative and unpredictable behaviour — initially seen as linked to mental health concerns — might equally reflect frustration with the legal system, anger about the lack of viable options, or lack of trust for figures in authority.

Behind the professional bearing of the lawyer were a raft of fears and concerns: Can I actually help this person? Am I completely out of my depth? What if she moves from anger to actual violence? What if I can’t get her out of the office before my next meeting?

As you can tell, this was not a normal lecture or training session.

“Participants had the opportunity to realize a different way to interact with our clients and colleagues,” says Amanda Dillman, the session organizer and section chairwoman of the Canadian Bar Association-Nova Scotia young lawyers division.

“Paul is dynamic,” she says. “His approach in the session was unexpected and encouraged us to step out of our comfort zones. We walked away changed — both in our perspectives and in our approach to our practices.”

Learning by “experiencing the issues’” was as important as theoretical models and concepts. The participants recognized that in a busy, highly competitive workplace, “asking for help” could look like “being unprofessional” but that, in theory at least, highly skilled professionals asking for help need not be a sign of weakness or incompetence.

Participants appreciated the creation of a reflective space, where they could explore important issues in a safe but challenging environment, and the group was keen to find other safe spaces, in both their personal and professional lives, to further explore issues of power, vulnerability, and support.

Having worked for more than two decades in various aspects of the ongoing peace and reconciliation processes in Northern Ireland, Hutchinson’s work encompasses the personal (individual counselling, mediating between individuals or families in conflict), the inter-personal (conflicts within and between communities/organizations), and the structural.

“From my practice, it is clear that conflict and how we deal with it are closely related to mental health,” he says. “And if we think conflict is always ‘negative,’ then it will be either ‘avoided’ or ‘attacked.’ There are other options!”

Diana Ginn is a professor at the Schulich School of Law in Halifax.

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