Changing the conversation

Does a good lawyer have to be mentally healthy? Perhaps it’s time to think differently about what makes us competent, writes Crystal Tomusiak

Crystal Tomusiak

I have been a dedicated, competent and ethical lawyer since 2005, in a career that has involved both accomplishments and setbacks.

Since before I entered law school, I have also struggled with the psychological consequences of having experienced significant personal trauma. Only recently did I seek professional help for that trauma, which resulted in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

And, for the first time, it affected me professionally in a way that required me to take some time off to address it.

While I’m glad I finally sought help to manage and relieve my suffering, I know that I’m unlikely to be “cured” or “healed” any time soon. Nevertheless, I’m no less of a lawyer now, nor was I any less of one before I sought treatment.

Like physical illnesses, mental health conditions are diverse, as are the circumstances, strengths and vulnerabilities of those who experience them. There is no single way in which an individual might be affected by a mental health issue. For me, the impact was mainly personal; and while I can’t say it never affected me professionally (just as any stressor may affect any of us at various times), I continued to advance in my career because I earned it. Despite my suffering, I was as strong a lawyer as anyone else, if not more so because I had already survived so much.

I want everyone who needs support to be empowered and encouraged to seek it. But my view is that we need to be cautious about the language, attitudes and measures we rely on when urging people to get help. In our well-meaning efforts to encourage others to reach out, we often lapse into coercive, shaming and paternalistic language and strategies that assume lawyers with mental health conditions are inherently more of a practice risk, less self-aware and less competent than others. While some mental health issues may sometimes affect people in those ways, in my view, it’s not OK to ignore the autonomy, individuality and dignity of a diverse category of people experiencing a wide range of conditions. 

So, when we say things to the effect of “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer” or are tempted to go so far as to suggest that it’s unethical to practise law with an untreated mental health condition, let’s pause and make space for those with chronic health limitations who may never be able to attain the same baseline of health as their peers yet are capable of making excellent contributions.

And before we place the onus on those with health conditions to go away and “fix” themselves (by achieving some unidentified target of normal health), let’s ask whether we in our profession are doing all we should to ensure the proper supports and accommodations are in place to enable those with different health statuses and needs to meaningfully participate without being treated as deficient.

As someone with a chronic health issue, I’m here to say that you don’t have to be healthy to be an excellent lawyer. Healthy lawyers are not inherently better. You are not less ethical or competent merely because you have an ongoing health condition. Your condition may or may not affect your ability to practise law. If it does, then you’re bound by the same rules as everyone else and will need to address that. If it doesn’t, then you can be just as good a lawyer as those who happen to be blessed with optimal health. 

But I also want to say, please consider seeking help if you’re suffering, not because you owe it to the profession but because your well-being matters. If your goal is to be the best possible lawyer you can be, then becoming healthier may assist with that. At the same time, improved health might show you that you’ve given too much of yourself to your legal career at the expense of your health and need to step back to care for yourself; and that’s OK, too.

As for me, I’m not “fixed” nor would I meet many people’s definition of healthy, but I’m managing my condition and plan to continue to contribute to my profession as I have done for the past 15 years. I’m not any less of a lawyer than those with better mental health — and neither are you if you happen to be struggling.

Crystal Tomusiak, is Crown counsel in the B.C. Prosecution Service, Criminal Appeals. She maintains a personal blog about trauma and lawyers’ mental health. The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely her own and not intended to represent those of her employer

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