In January this year, Lawyer 2B reported that calls to LawCare advice helpline, a service which offers support for lawyers, had risen by 12% last year. Half of those calls were related to stress and depression. But actually, I was really disappointed in what little I could find out on the internet about mental illness in the legal profession, and some of what I did find suggested that mental well-being is still very much a ‘taboo subject’.
“If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.”
Prime Minister, Theresa May
A noteworthy omission from the recent Queen’s Speech were the provisions for furthering support for the country’s mental health services, as the Prime Minister had failed to renew her pledge given in the election campaign. I am critical of the Prime Minister who, last year, pledged to “deal with Britain’s longstanding productivity problem”, even though there are credible reports going back over fourteen years which have indicated, time and time again, that mental health is detrimental to productivity in the workplace.
My underlying intention in this article is to highlight to my readers that mental well-being is a very important cornerstone of our lives, and it can hinder our ability to succeed. Coming from my own personal experiences, I put it to all of my readers that opening up and sharing our experiences can be hugely beneficial to our mental well-being – so here is my story.
I was feeling very nourished coming back from my experience in China, and that made me feel very confident about my third year and as a result I was setting myself a number of very ambitious goals: I was involved in a Mentoring Scheme with Aspiring Solicitors; I was making a start on my training contract applications; I had a roster of opportunities with the University and London law firms to look forward to; I took on an extra two hours of Chinese language lessons a week; whilst working at Greggs one day a week – I was taking on a lot! My ‘old life’, which I now call it, was described by my counsellor as a “bucket full of water just waiting to overflow”.
It was around November last year that it all started to crumble. I was stood at the train station and had just been informed that my train to London had been cancelled. Bear in mind that the week before hand I was ’stung’ by Virgin Trains when I had to travel on materially the same train from Preston instead of Lancaster.
I had become increasingly worried about what impression this would give to the people who had offered me those opportunities. I started to become very anxious and constantly on edge: I was struggling to sleep because I was worrying that I was losing traction, and I felt that my attitudes were hindering my ability to build healthy connections with the people around me. Eventually I reached a point where I had enough of pleasing people when I couldn’t even please myself.
Keeping life balanced
I thought that “taking water out of the bucket” would help me to eradicate the problem completely, and whilst it did help, it actually opened up a whole load of doubts that I had about the direction of my life. I was saying to people “What am I going to do – I am this ‘Solicitor To Be’ that doesn’t want to be a solicitor anymore!” and I felt like I was disappointing all of the people around me that were rooting for me.
I realised that it was time to take care of me first, but being unaware of what the next nine months would bring, I became very isolated and started sitting by myself in lectures. I hated having to interact with other students, and being isolated allowed those negative thoughts to snowball over time. Toxic thinking made me very ill and I was becoming even more withdrawn from the course. The only gratification I had was the money I was earning in my new job with the University’s Student Recruitment team – and I enjoyed spending that on ways to distract myself from my problems.
My course leader, Stephanie Jones, invited me to go over a personality test similar to those which many commercial firms have incorporated within their recruitment processes. This was one of the additional opportunities that I had signed up for about a month before my issues had begun, and I was in a much clearer mind-set when I had completed it. As I said, I did not actually want help at first, but my course leader had chased me up on the appointment to go over the results so that I could get a picture of what kind of profile potential employers might see. I think Stephanie could tell that there were significant changes to my attitudes since I last saw her – I believed that she understood me and what I was going through, and this had given me an opportunity to reflect on the ups and downs.
We spent almost all of the lunch period going through each area of my personality, and afterwards, reconciling this with my friends and family was helping me to make sense of the negative behaviours I had adopted. When I started sharing my problems with the people who knew and understood me, it translated to healthy positive thoughts. My thoughts were clearer and I was becoming less passive and more active. I do still really regret becoming socially withdrawn from studies, and I am still struggling to reintegrate with the cohort.
Take back control
Now that I am thinking more clearly, I have had to make some tough decisions, but they are the right decisions for me. My ambitions meanwhile are to return to China to start a one year teaching post after graduation – this a similar route that trainees I have met in London firms have also pursued.
Since then things have been falling in to place. I have been invited by the British Council to be the University’s Campus Ambassador, which I am told will increase my success in an application for the teaching post. In the other hand, I have my Immigration Law and Practice module coming up this year.
Although it is not the most conventional career aspiration, I am hoping that with all of these opportunities under the belt, I can find a career which will satisfy both my love for the law and my love for China.
My family, including my mother and sister who are outstanding contributors to the Mental Health profession.
University academics, including Stephanie Jones and Fiona Bledge, for their compassion during difficult times.
University of Central Lancashire Counselling Service.