For Women in Law By Women in Law

2022 National Wellness Study – Part VI: Reducing Stigmatization Surrounding Mental Health Issues

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This is the sixth post in our series on The National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada published by the Université de Sherbrooke, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the Canadian Bar Association in December 2022 (the “Report”).

In this post we will be discussing the stigmatization of mental health issues in the legal profession, as explored in the Report.


What is stigma?

The Report outlines three distinct types of stigmas surrounding mental health:

Personal stigma refers to our own personal attitudes or emotional responses towards mental health issues.

Perceived stigma refers to our individual beliefs about how others think and feel about mental health issues.

Internalized stigma refers to our own personal and subjective experience living with mental health issues.

Stigma increases the likelihood that individuals will not talk about their mental health or seek help when they need it. When we start to believe and internalize stigma, for example, it can make us feel isolated, push us to withdraw and feel alienated in social situations, and even lead to discrimination. The Report found that stigma prevents 40% of people with anxiety or depression from seeking medical help.

Discrimination is a behaviour that stems from stigma and negative stereotypes. It’s the way people treat others based on those unfair stereotypes and negative beliefs. The Report emphasizes that in order to improve our overall understanding of mental health issues and to prevent discrimination, we need to examine our own personal stigmas.


Stigma in the Legal Profession

According to The Report, there’s an average discrepancy of 40.7% between what we as legal professionals believe about people dealing with mental health issues and what we think our colleagues believe. The interesting thing is, 53.8% of the legal professionals who took part in the study feel that others in their profession have a pretty negative view of people with mental health challenges. However, when you look at the flip side, only a small 6.1% of legal professionals actually agree with that statement. Quite a gap between perception and reality, isn’t it?

Authors of the Report note that 52.8% of legal professionals who have or have had mental health issues said they feel inferior to their colleagues who have not. However, only 8.1% of legal professionals indicated that they believe mental health issues are a sign of personal weakness.

In contrast, almost 20% of legal professionals believe that people with mental health issues are less suitable for legal work than those without such issues. This demonstrates that legal professionals believe that experiencing mental health issues does not fit in with the high-performance culture that is strongly embedded in the profession.

Further, 43.3% of participating legal professionals with mental health issues said they feel alienated due to their mental health issues. The data revealed that of all participants, 34.6% felt that most people in the profession stigmatize people with mental health issues. This proportion is even higher for people who fall into the following categories:

-LGBTQ2S+ community (50.5%);

-those who are or have been on sick leave (50.5%);

-professionals whose colleagues know about their mental health diagnosis (44.9%);

-those living with a disability (44.6%);

-women (40.2%);

-professionals under 40 years of age (39.3%); and

-professionals working in a firm with billable hours (36.9%). See our previous blog post which discusses the stressors and consequences of the billable hour model.

-Despite great advances in mental health awareness, fear and misunderstanding often lead to prejudice against people with mental illness.


What can we do?

Professional culture is a major part of our identity as legal professionals. When we feel like our colleagues might not see people with mental health challenges the same way we do within our high-performance profession, it can make us hesitant to open up about our own struggles for fear of being judged and discriminated against.

However, there is some good news: we can make a positive change. By increasing our individual awareness of mental health issues and understanding our own personal stigmas and biases, we can help to mitigate the fear, judgment, and discrimination our colleagues currently face. The first steps toward breaking down the stigma around mental health are simple but crucial: we’ve got to boost awareness and be willing to have open conversations about it. It’s a win-win for everyone.


About the Authors

Guest Blogger, Karina Alibhai

Karina Alibhai is an associate with Harper Grey LLP and works with their Commercial Litigation and Construction Groups. Karina joined Harper Grey as an articling student in 2020, completed her articles with the firm and was called to the BC bar in 2021. She received her bachelor’s degree, from McGill University in 2017, where she focused her studies on International Development. Karina attended law school at Thompson Rivers University and graduated in 2020.


Grace Smyth-Bolland is an associate with Harper Grey LLP and works with their Business Law Group. Grace joined Harper Grey as an articling student in 2021, completed her articles with the firm and was called to the BC bar in 2022. She completed her law and philosophy degrees at Adelaide University in 2015 and 2016. Grace immigrated to Canada from Australia in 2017 after spending some time in South America, the US, and the Middle East.


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