“Life can get you down, so I just numb the way it feels, I drown it with a drink and out of date prescription pills and all the ones that love me they just left on the shelf, no farewell, so before I save someone else, I’ve got to save myself.”
Ed Sheeran, Save Myself

World Mental Health Day is on 10th October 2020. The objective is to help raise mental health awareness. It is fair to say that each of us can make a contribution to ensure that people dealing with mental health problems can live better lives.

Mental health and well-being have always been important, but now, more so than ever, it has a deeper narrative and understanding. As a subject matter it is more widely spoken about and acknowledged, not just for the clients that we engage with but also for us a profession.

As I was starting my notes for this article, I started from looking at mental health and well-being from a client’s perspective but the more I thought about it I questioned why had I done this? Why had I approached it in this way? Mental health is not selective – it doesn’t target just parents who go through a messy divorce, parents who do not have their children living with them, parents who have social services involvement. It offers no discrimination.

So, my first lesson from thinking about this issue is that it’s important not to pigeonhole the topic as relating to just a certain type / defined sector of the population. The short point is that mental health and well-being affects us all and ‘everyone’s experience of mental health problems is different.’

Looking at mental health from a professional’s perspective.

2020 has been a tough year. As a profession we have, at rapid pace, experienced and tolerated a new way of working; one that is blurring the boundaries of when the workday starts and ends, one that is forcing us to develop a culture of managing a higher volume of work, one where it is unacceptable to say ‘no’. Alongside this ‘new world’ we still have our other professional obligations as well as manging our life away from the court arena.

These pressures are recognised at the very top with The Rt Hon. Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, recently urging those working in the family courts to focus on well-being. (and this was pre-Covid!) Sir James Munby has also commented that, ‘everyone… is over working… and the system is already unsustainable.’

We need to start looking after ourselves a little better – if we are not doing that then how can we expect our lay clients to do the same?

So, what are the little things that we can do to help? I think we need to create better habits – this takes discipline and self-control but also respect and understanding from our colleagues.

An example is out of hours working i.e. sending emails at silly o’clock – we all do it, I get that – but there must be an understanding that others are not expected to reply. Too often I have draft orders sent to me at 9.30/10pm asking for amendments by 9am the following day. I always respond with a no (out of principle if nothing else) and state a response will come later in the day, but I am still working by sending that reply… urgh – I shouldn’t have to do that.

I remember one Silk that led me, openly criticising junior counsel for not responding to an overnight email and inferring that it demonstrated an inadequacy – surely those more senior need to lead by example. As the new era of barristers start their pupillages they cannot be exposed to this and be left thinking that this is the norm…. ‘if nothing changes nothing changes.’

So, back to the little things that turn into big things. As a new breed of Barrister’s Chambers, we are proud to be pioneering a new approach to the age old challenge of work life balance. A big part of this is encouraging and empowering all members of our team to adopt an attitude to work that includes: better discipline around working hours, taking time off, saying no, respecting the way others work, taking breaks from the screen, phone calls, WhatsApp groups and social media.

We also know how important it is to rest at the weekend and ringfence time. My big change (and one that so far, I have stuck to) is getting a good night’s sleep. If you’ve worked hard during the day the rest can wait until tomorrow.

We are a profession of self-employed individuals and so holidays are rare. We don’t get paid for being off work and therefore during lockdown we have questioned ‘what is the purpose of a holiday’ with the internal response of ‘I’ll just be at home so I might as well work.’

It is really important to have some time off, even if we read a book or simply do nothing and recharge our batteries.

Go and take a look at the books we recommended in last month’s newsletter, buy one, book a day off and have a PJ and cuppa sort of day (remembering to turn phones and emails off!)

Looking at mental health from a client’s perspective.

Covid has impacted on everyone and has literally turned people’s lives upside down.

What does it mean when we talk about mental health? For me, to be in good mental health means you want to make the most of your potential, cope with life and play a full part in your family, workplace, community and among friends.

Mental health, as I am learning, is everyone’s business. We all have times when we feel under pressure, most of the time those feelings pass but sometimes they do not and they can develop into a more serious problem. That could happen to anyone one of us or anyone close to us. However, we see it a lot in our clients.

Naturally a breakdown or an interference with a family unit can have an unbearable toll of people’s mental health and more so if they have underlying vulnerabilities.

It is known that a high number of family lawyers report that most or some of their clients expressed feelings of anxiety, depression or mental health issues because of the litigation. We need to be better equipped to recognise these issues and be able to support and signpost.

Parents and carers worry about how to manage stress especially during the challenges of court litigation. It is important to remember that everyone copes with change and stress in different ways.

Here are my hints and tips that you might find helpful in sharing and supporting with your client:

  • Develop a routine
  • Connect with other people
  • Live a healthy life
  • Do something for yourself
  • Reframe unhelpful thoughts
  • Be in the present moment (mindfulness)
  • Get good sleep

Written by Lisa Edmunds, CEO & Senior Consultant Barrister of Unit Chambers.

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