Let’s Talk, indeed

Bill Trudell
Our profession is one of communicators. Clients seek our advice. We urge them to communicate the problems they are experiencing and we are trained to find and convey the solution.

You might say our work can be neatly summarized as providing the environment to say, “Let’s talk.”

Yet this environment seems to evaporate when the issue is our own problems, our emotions and our mental health.

We welcome solving the problems of the world, but I think we fail to address our own. That’s why Let’s Talk Day on Jan. 27 is as important to the legal profession as it is to everyone in our society.

It is remarkable. Bell Canada, that sometimes frustrating provider of electronic communication, one day a year sets the standard for confronting the stigma of mental health and actually puts its money where its dial tone is.

It is a fascinatingly brilliant and generous campaign that invites all of us to reach out and ask for help, or lend it, in the face of an epidemic of mental illness.

All across Canada, we can look up and see those billboards, many with the joyful face of Clara Hughes, inviting us to call or text or tweet on Jan. 27, and each time, five cents gets earmarked for mental health programs.

We are invited to “Talk about it,” and it represents an incredible advancement in our society from the darkness, shame, and banishment of the mentally ill to an enlightened recognition that we all likely experience degrees of depression and illness in our families, neighbourhoods, communities, workplaces, and perhaps in our mirrors.

From insane asylums, chains, shock treatments, and lobotomies to pharmacological advances beyond our imagination, group and individual therapies with non-judgmental listeners — our world has changed dramatically.

I would suggest that the last five years in this country have seen more changes, acceptance, or at least dialogue, than in the previous half-century.

The front-page, open media discussions about stripping away the veil surrounding mental illness is simply historic. The number of well-known personalities who have stepped forward to confront and admit their mental disorders and dependencies has been remarkable.

The world of criminal justice has featured a sea change in approaches to mental illness. We are slowly starting to realize and accept that some people who do horrible things are actually sick. We still struggle to understand that a not criminally responsible verdict means just that — that an illness was the perpetrator, the person only the puppet of a disease.

As difficult as it is, I believe our Canadian society is open to looking behind the act to also understand the mind that lurks there.

With the leadership of the remarkable Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator, we are awakening to the realization that our jails have become warehouses for the mentally ill and governments are starting to react.

A most remarkable statement was made quite recently by a very senior and distinguished former police officer at a collaborative conference, discussing the difficult role of the police in many situations they encounter.  

“Don’t give me 200 more police officers; give me 200 hospital beds.”

The chief executive officer of Bell Canada, George Cope, is much more than a successful capitalist. He is a devoted catalyst in the emerging dialogue surrounding mental illness. He has noted, which also makes him a pragmatist, that more than 500,000 Canadians miss work each week due to mental health issues.  This can have a staggering effect on the loss of productivity and the bottom line. It is estimated that shockingly, $51 billion is the annual cost of mental illness in Canada.

An entire buddy system was set up within Bell to monitor, assist, listen to, and engage the absentee ill employees in their workplace.

I don’t think we do enough in the workplaces of our own profession. Professional regulators in all the professions are slow to realize and deal with the mental illness and emotional collapse of many of their members. Our profession is no different.   Moreover, a review of the Law Society of Upper Canada jurisprudence in Ontario seems to reflect a trend to be overprotective of the public’s right to know, as opposed to the protection of the mental health information at hearings, as in-camera proceedings are an extreme exception.

Just as there are emerging mental health diversion programs throughout the criminal justice system, so must there be a robust, engaged, and enlightened approach in the professional regulatory systems to protect members who suffer from stress, depression, and mental illness in its many forms.

This is especially acute in the legal profession because we have so much inherent difficulty admitting that we have failed, that we can’t save the world, that we actually need help, indeed, someone to talk to.

Even if we are judges or law students, on Jan. 27, let’s reach out to a colleague we know is suffering, perhaps alone, likely in silence. We are supposed to be communicators, so let’s talk.

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