A ‘sea change’ on mental health from the LSUC

The Law Society of Upper Canada’s governing body will vote on approving a new mental health strategy at its monthly meeting tomorrow.

If the strategy is approved, the law society will develop “a comprehensive and proactive” communication strategy for mental health and addiction awareness. The plan is to “focus on early, repeated and pervasive communication, education and attitudinal change,” says the LSUC's mental health task force report.

The proposed strategy also recommends looking into adopting diversion discipline programs for lawyers and paralegals with mental health issues. In Nova Scotia, for example, the barristers’ society’s Fitness to Practise program creates a separate hearing panel for licensees who suffer from mental health issues.

If the mental health strategy is implemented, the law society will also consider conducting capacity hearings, which determine whether a lawyer is mentally fit to practise law, in the absence of the public.

“The regulator is not an expert in mental health and cannot treat or remedy the illnesses or addictions of its licensees. It should, instead, have in place tools that will allow for diversion in the appropriate circumstances, with appropriate confidentiality protocols,” says the report.

In an e-mail to Legal Feeds, Doron Gold, staff clinician at Homewood Health, said he supports diversion programs and more discretion for capacity hearings.

“The irony we often face is that the people who most need help for issues that are not based in bad character or ill intention are the least open to admitting these conditions due to stigma and the fear that the regulator will brand them as unfit and beyond help,” said Gold.

“The more informed and discreet the regulator becomes around these issues, the better, and ultimately, more effective the process will be. We don’t want people who, if given access to appropriate assistance could practise well, avoid that assistance, and simply be labeled unfit or not entitled to practise,” he added.

Former Ontario Bar Association president Orlando Da Silva, who used his leadership at the OBA to bring attention to mental illness in the legal profession, says the proposed strategy is sign that the regulator has listened to advocates like him.

If the plan is implemented, “I think the law society will have succeeded in moving mountains,” says Da Silva.

“It will be a sea change in the way lawyers address their own mental health issues and it will be a sigh of relief for those who want to talk but are afraid to because of the stigma.”

Da Silva has spoken openly about his own struggles with mental illness, but “I had never expected to see a mental health strategy like this in my lifetime as a lawyer,” he says. “This doesn’t look like lip service to me; this looks like leadership.”

The proposed mental health strategy comes amid growing evidence that lawyers and other legal professionals may be at a higher risk of developing mental illness and addictions.

“The culture of and stressors on the legal professions raise barriers to openly addressing these issues for those who may be affected by them and those with whom they work and interact,” the law society report’s executive summary reads.

“The stigma surrounding mental illness and addictions, the too common confusion of diagnosis with impairment and the concerns that careers will be permanently and negatively affected by disclosure have a particular impact on lawyers’ and paralegals’ willingness to reveal such illness or addictions.”

If Convocations approves the strategy, the law society will provide “specialized training” for staff who interact with licensees on mental illness and addictions. Gold calls it a “fantastic idea” that’s long overdue.

“Note, for instance, the emphasis in the report on not assuming that unresponsiveness by a member under investigation amounts to ungovernability,” said Gold, who brought up this issue when he was consulted by the law society’s mental health task force.

“Often, unresponsiveness by members is simply overwhelming anxiety leading to avoidance of even opening law society correspondence. It is not ill intent but a kind of psychological paralysis.”

Also part of the strategy is looking into whether the law society should create a mental health model policy to educate law firms and other employers on the tools to promoting mental health and identifying “possible systemic causes within the legal professions’ culture and employment practices that engender or exacerbate these issues.”

Update April 28: The LSUC approved the new mental health strategy at its meeting of Convcation.

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