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.

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