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Mental illness is not a sign of weakness

Ab Initio
|Written By Rebecca Lockwood
Mental illness is not a sign of weakness

In October of my first year of law school, a counsellor explained to me I was suffering from anxiety depression. I knew something was very wrong, but I didn’t know what was going on or where to turn.

My doctor referred me to this counsellor after I broke down during a routine check-up. She inquired about my general health and asked, “How are you doing these days?” With that question alone, I began to sob. She sensed something was up.

Although my counsellor wasn’t a psychiatrist and thus her diagnosis wasn’t official, it had the same effect as one. Coming to understand what I was experiencing brought both relief and shame. I was relieved to know that spending entire days in bed crying wasn’t my new “normal” state of being. I had been afraid this was going to last indefinitely. I was ashamed because I felt weak, like I had failed to live up to people’s expectations, including and especially my own.

The reasons, sources, and triggers of my depression were much more profound than simply starting law school. However, this new stage of my life exacerbated my already fragile state. I won’t describe in too much detail what was going on outside of my studies at that time, but I will say it was severe and terrifying at times.

Before 2011, my academic and professional life had grounded me and given me purpose. That kind of success was central to my identity up until that point. However, in law school, I came to feel isolated, small, and decidedly unintelligent. I felt a new kind of pressure to perform that weighed heavily on my shoulders.

This pressure and lack of grounding combined with my struggles outside of school did me in. I was emotionally and mentally exhausted. I felt weak. And being weak in law school was something I desperately wanted to avoid.

It took me about a year to get back on my feet after that point. I tried out a number of counsellors until I found someone who understood and supported me. Identifying that I was struggling with depression meant I had to untangle the knot inside of me and begin to follow the threads to the sources of my sadness. That alone was daunting.

I began to really understand what mindfulness and self-care meant. Antidepressant medications were suggested, but I felt confident I could overcome this obstacle with other remedies like sleep, a healthy diet, lots of exercise, and “the good stuff.”

The good stuff for me included returning to my tango lessons every Thursday night; taking a full day off every week or so in which I did absolutely no school work and instead started my day with yoga and spent the rest of the afternoon with my closest friends and family; and getting lost in a Gabriel García Márquez novel on the bus to school instead of trying to cram in contract law readings during my commute.

I also realized in the process that my mental-health struggles were in fact a source of strength. I had proven to myself I was resilient in a way I didn’t even realize. I was also greatly humbled, something I see as a positive and necessary experience. It gave me a sense of empathy for others going through similar battles, which has helped me a great deal in my interactions now.

Today, I feel great. I have bad days, but they are just bad days, not months. I still practise self-care and indulge in my good stuff on a regular basis to try to keep feelings of anxiety at bay. I know shit will probably (inevitably) hit the fan again at some point in my life, but I have the tools to cope with it and the experience to show I can overcome even the biggest obstacles.

I write this confessional not as a sob story or to gain sympathy from readers (I am certainly not alone in my experiences), but to try and encourage the idea that mental-health issues are not a weakness — not in law school, not in life. As well, I want to act as proof that mental illness in the legal profession is a reality we need to start talking about and taking seriously.

Mental and emotional hardship doesn’t diminish your intellect or talent as a lawyer; it simply makes you a multifaceted person and perhaps a more relatable lawyer.

Moralistic as it might sound, I press the need for empathy in the discussion of this topic because the necessary response to mental health is always more complex than simply “get over it.” We need to re-evaluate our idea of what is strength and what is weakness.

October seemed like the perfect month to take part in this conversation on mental health. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health had its mental health awareness week earlier in the month and Osgoode Hall Law School is holding its own awareness campaign this week. Such initiatives are evidence law schools are indeed responding to this reality and providing resources for students experiencing mental-health issues.

Slowly but surely, things are looking up.

Some will respond to this article and others like it with sentiments like “suck it up” or suggest this profession isn’t for me. To that, I’d tell this critic to put his or herself in the shoes of someone like me. When you feel yourself spiralling downward, you wish and pray and beg you could just “suck it up.” You can’t.

  • Great Work!

    I want to congratulate you on seeking help for your mental health issues as it is very difficult for most of us to admit something is wrong. I also want to congratulate you on speaking out.

    Our profession is in dire need of people like you who are not afraid of talking about mental illness. It is very, very sad but true.

    As a fellow sufferer who was also diagnosed somewhat recently, I want to welcome you to your future profession and I hope I will hear more about you and your achievements. Mental illness does not prevent you from succeeding!

    My warmest wishes to you.
  • RE: Mental illness is not a sign of weakness

    Rebecca, I found your article pretty helpful and a hope and courage for others that are suffering from emotional hardships in law school or outside of it. Keep it up, you have come a long way!
  • Analyst

    chris Stockley
    first let me say you are a brave person to share your experience of something that feels so personal and can have such stigma attached to it in our society, especially in the "professional" world.

    I have suffered with depression for many years myself and know that the first person to say "suck it up" is usually the person suffering themselves.

    I applaud you for doing so well in recognizing the illness as something that is not your fault or a character flaw and for integrating such a healthy and well thought out approach to meeting this challenge.

    You are quite right that this struggle actually makes you a more aware and understanding person since you have "walked a mile" in those shoes.

    Thank you for sharing and reminding all of us that we are not alone, and for helping make others more aware of the reality of Depression and Anxiety, It is a real condition just not as easy to see as a wheel chair or white cane
  • Not just honest, but practical

    Rebecca, it is a pleasure to think that someone with your courage and strength will be a practising lawyer someday soon.
    Your article not only detailed your struggles, but also your practical tools for dealing with the triggers you faced. This should give hope and inspiration to many.
  • retired teacher

    An excellent article....give hope to new lawyers!
  • The Mental Health Conversation

    Rebecca, thank you for your candor. As a 1L I have seen you wearing all of your multiple hats on campus and I have repeatedly asked myself "how does she do it?" For all intents and purposes you appear indefatigable. It is really reassuring to know that you are as human as the rest of us despite all appearances to the contrary. Having struggled with depression for many years, it is refreshing to see such a prominent student speak out about her private challenges. I hope that sharing your story will be far more beneficial than those ways in which you might lose (re: Charter Rights).
  • You Have Now Lost Your Charter Rights.

    It is great you are taking care of yourself, but now you have big legal problems. Any Doctor can examine this information and certify you. Legally, the BCCA has decided "Examination" is looking at Anything, like this article. The Doctor does not have to talk to or see you. They also decided you have No Charter Rights when any Doctor wants to Detain & force treat you with his/her choice of methods & drugs. You do not have a right to a lawyer while they do that. The SCC has never looked at a Civil (non-criminal) Mental Health Charter case, so don't look for them for help. The Federal Conservative Government also will not support your Charter efforts. You have joined 20% of the Canadian population that have no charter rights.
  • Thanks

    Rebecca L
    I want to thank everyone who took the time to comment on my article this month. The outpour of support has been overwhelming. I'm sincerely touched. My story is but one of many and I'm fortunate to have recovered as quickly as I did. There are many others still struggling and in silence. I hope this is the beginning of a fresh dialogue in the legal community. I'm happy I could contribute in some small way. Thank you again!
  • Bravo

    Brian Knowler
    Rebecca- thank you for your courage in coming out of the 'mental health' closet. On top of my status as a lawyer, I am also a police officer. Policing is another profession in which mental health issues (in my case, post traumatic stress after I was the first responder to the death of a close friend who died in my arms)are shushed and we are told to 'suck it up.'

    It takes more people like yourself, students and practicing members alike, to step forward to admit to grappling with these issues. I commend you for recognizing this in yourself and for taking positive steps to heal and re-center yourself.

    Best of luck as you continue on your journey!
  • RE: Mental illness is not a sign of weakness

    I appreciate the suggestion on more of "the good stuff" - somehow got lost along the way. Thanks
  • RE: Mental illness is not a sign of weakness

    Thank you for your courageous article and for helping to break the stigma around mental illness. What you did is no small thing and I thank you for sharing your story.
  • The Profession Needs a Wake Up Call

    A courageous article! I have been practicing 24 years, and in that time I have seen that large firm lawyers suffering from mental illness are quietly given a leave of absence and their files assumed by others until they are well. I have also seen first hand lawyers fired for the temerity of suffering from mental illness! Finally, I have witnessed how small firm lawyers and sole practitioners are fed to the wolves. There is a desperate need to address this issue at the grass roots as it is very prevalent in our profession, and the LSUC has few tools to deal with it beyond the disciplinary process. I commend you for standing up to address a very troubling problem.
  • RE: Mental illness is not a sign of weakness

    "However, in law school, I came to feel isolated, small, and decidedly unintelligent" - I could have so easily written these words. Your experience completely reflects my own. I went through anxiety depression as well in second year, and nearly quit the profession because of it. I'm so glad to see this article. There are many more like us who have gone through similar experiences, experiences that make us stronger for what they put us through.

    I hope you're doing well.
  • Mr

    Mike Brown
    Been there, done that. Except I wasn't smart enough to get the help I knew I needed. Too focused on studying. Good for you for having the strength and courage to work through it.
  • Thanks for this

    Thank you for writing this. Too many people in this profession have issues with anxiety and depression, and not enough of us talk about it.

    I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in my 2nd year of law school. It took 2 years for me to get a diagnosis, and another 2 to get a treatment plan worked out. I find reading other people's stories comforting as it reminds me that "we are not alone".
  • Lawyer

    David Colford
    Thank you for your testimonial!
    Never give up, however difficult the challenges may be. The ability to identify the sources of terror, anxiety and sadness is a skill that requires constant practice, as gradually all those terrors, anxieties and sadness become less formiable to deal with. Enjoy the good stuff and beware much of what passes for the pressures of Professional life is nothing more than inadequate coping mechanisms and deviate behaviours of some rather self-deceived people.
  • You aren't alone.

    Thank you for sharing such a great story. You've said so many things that I can't begin to comment on them all, but as I read your story I see many pieces of mine in there. We need to start speaking up because our profession needs to change. "Suck it up" isn't the answer anymore students need to be provided with the tools to learn to be mindful and aware of anxiety or depression. With these tools there is no need to "Suck it up" because anxieties are addressed and laid to rest properly, and as you say, a bad month can be reduced into single bad days you can cope with.
  • Re many lawyers suffer from mental illness

    Courageous article! There is plenty of room for you in this profession. I'm a 45 year old woman litigator, partner in a law firm. I have struggled sometimes more, sometimes less,but throughout my career with some degree of anxiety or depression, but its amazing how you weaknesses can become your strengths.
  • RE: Mental illness is not a sign of weakness

    I Could not continue my day without thanking you for writing this. It is helpful to know that we are not alone when we feel more alone than ever.
  • LLM Student

    Tracy Nanziri
    Wow! I commend you for writing this article. If anyone at all questions your strength, they can look to this as a testament to it.
  • RE: Mental illness is not a sign of weakness

    Noel Semple
    This is very powerful. Thank you!
  • Mr.

    Thomas S Harrsion
    Thank you for your courage in sharing your experiences. The reality is far too many students and lawyers experience the ill effects of the pressures of law. Your strength in addressing these challenges and your story will encourage many to re-assess their own approaches to law.