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Never off syndrome

01 Apr 2019 / Wellbeing Print

The mental-health cost of the ‘never-off’ syndrome

In a world where we are more connected than ever, we seem to be becoming more and more disconnected from ourselves. A by-product of this disconnection is poor mental health.

We all intuitively know what mental health is, and we don’t need to discuss its ins and outs. It is more useful to assess how mental health affects us collectively as a profession.

I read a statistic recently that mental health will affect one in four people at some stage in their lives. However, I maintain that mental health issues will affect all of us, on some level, at some point in our lives.

In December 2018, I attended the Mental Health Summit at the Aviva in Dublin. Brent Pope opened proceedings with an account of his own struggle with mental health.

He spoke of the guilt attached to mental health, asking: “Why me? I have everything I need. I am not homeless. Why do I feel like this? Why can’t I just be happy?”

Societal pressure

He also spoke about the societal pressure on men to supress their emotions and how this pressure stifled his mental-health journey until he was ready to set the stigmas aside and find a way for himself.

This point was then further discussed by Steve Bowcott, CEO of John Sisk & Sons Construction, when he addressed the question of why his company was spending so much money protecting workers on site from falling structures, when a large proportion of employee fatalities were from suicide.

This certainly shook the audience, and he proceeded to speak in-depth about his employees’ struggles and how he, as a member of senior management, felt responsible to act.

This got me thinking about my own profession.

No health without mental health

Our profession is suffering from the ‘never-off’ syndrome. We are now more productive, responsive, and efficient than ever before – but at what cost?

Mental-health conditions are diseases of public-health importance, constituting about 14% of the global burden of diseases (Martin Prince et al (2007), ‘No health without mental health’, The Lancet (370) pp859-77).

Mental-health illnesses are, indeed, one of the leading causes of workplace absenteeism or loss of job opportunity.

Solicitors are not immune to this. We therefore need a profession-wide, practical approach to mental health to be implemented as a matter of policy, as is evident from previous statements of the Law Society’s immediate past-president Michael Quinlan, and now Patrick Dorgan (see ‘President’s message’, Law Society Gazette, Jan/Feb 2019).

Individual breakthroughs can only be made when we have the right tools to build resilience and educate ourselves on mental health.

This early intervention approach is necessary, therefore, from our profession’s policymakers.

This will allow us to transcend ourselves and, more importantly, help ourselves in our day-to-day professional lives.

A wider perspective

Taking a step back and looking at mental health from a wider perspective, we could seek guidance from those in the know.

Freud spoke of the capacity to live, to work, and to love. These, he mused, were essential to successful living as a functioning human being.

We know how to live and how to love. But to work? What about the stress and the inevitable mental-health implications of living in a state of stress caused by excessive work and inevitable responsibility?

Those in the know will tell us that stress, per se, is good for us. It is necessary and inevitable. But we should not live in a constant state of distress.

Distress, it is reported, can be neutralised by managing our perceptions of situations, as well as building resilience through disassociation.

Mindfulness meditation

Disassociation can be effected through practices like mindfulness meditation, yoga, and pilates.

In simple terms, it means taking a step back, being truly present, and watching a situation from the third person. This harks back to the old advice of “act as you would if you were advising a friend”.

There is no health without mental health. Mental health is irrational, and we won’t always understand why it affects us when it does.

Proactive steps must be taken by us and by management in legal services firms, as well as policymakers, to encourage an open conversation in our profession about mental health

Jennifer O’Sullivan
Jennifer O’Sullivan is a member of the Younger Members’ Committee of the Law Society of Ireland