The commentary in this article is based on the author’s experience and does not necessarily represent the views of the Ministry of the Attorney General or the Government of Ontario.
In 2002, Beth Beattie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The stereotype of people living with bipolar disorder is that they are inherently unstable and unreliable. Beth did not want to be thought of in those terms as a lawyer. As a result of stigma, both societal and self-imposed, she did not share her story outside her family and closest friends for 14 years.
Since 2004 Beth has been counsel at the Ministry of the Attorney General Civil Law Division, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Long-Term Care Branch. Beth has a broad-based litigation practice and has expertise in the areas of Coroner’s inquests, human rights, forensic and civil mental health, OHIP eligibility and long-term care home compliance. Beth has a Master of Laws from Osgoode Hall Law School in alternative dispute resolution.
In 2017 Beth disclosed her illness to colleagues. She quickly began speaking publicly on the topic of living and working with mental illness. Beth has made presentations to thousands of people, primarily lawyers in the public and private sectors. She has also made presentations to schools, corporations and at various levels of the Ontario government as well as the British Columbia Prosecution Service.
Since January 2018 Beth has been a friend of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign. Her story has been featured on television, radio, print media and billboards across the country.
Beth is a founding member of the Mental Health Illuminati, a group of lawyers with lived mental health experience, which provides programming in the Ministry of the Attorney General and beyond
I was 27 when the first symptoms of bipolar disorder crept into my life. At the time I was a first- year associate in the litigation department of a large Bay Street firm. It was a combination of work stress, a tendency towards perfectionism and a predisposition towards worrying too much that led to my brain chemistry turning on me.
I sank into a dark place.
Normally a high functioning, hardworking and well-regarded lawyer, I was convinced that I was a failure. I was sure that I was constantly on the verge of making a major mistake. My former healthy sense of self was shattered. My biggest dread was that colleagues and clients would find out that I was ill.
After a few months of feeling hopeless I saw a psychiatrist and reluctantly started taking an antidepressant. Fortunately for me I respond well to medication and quickly returned to my old self. I enjoyed two years of stable mood and then during a stressful period at work and in my personal life I stopped sleeping. Over the course of a few days my mood ramped up and I became hypomanic. Despite the lack of sleep I felt energized, euphoric and super-productive. I was also irritable and talked a lot to the point that no one could interrupt me. My psychiatrist took me off my medication and prescribed other drugs to bring me back to ground.
Over the course of the following six years I had several major depressive episodes, brief periods of elevated moods and long stretches of normal moods between the ups and downs. I kept my psychiatrist busy tweaking my medication to try to find balance.
At its most extreme, mania can lead to psychosis, where one loses touch with reality. This happened to me during the Christmas holidays of 2002. My partner left me unexpectedly. I stopped sleeping, a sure sign I was en route to a manic episode. My mood spiralled upward and I became floridly psychotic. I was convinced that my father was God and my nephew (who incidentally was born on Christmas Day three years earlier) was the Second Coming.
My brother took me to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. I presented as agitated and argumentative. I threatened one of the staff psychiatrists and quickly found myself placed in four-point restraints and shot full of antipsychotic medication. That began a two-week stint as an in-patient. I was officially diagnosed with bipolar I disorder.
When I was discharged from the hospital, two themes played out. Firstly, I was obsessed with the thought that I’d get depressed or manic again. I read lots of books and articles on bipolarity and learned that many people get sick again. I was convinced that it was just a matter of time before I would experience a deep low or an uncontrollable high.
Secondly, I was mortified at the possibility that people would find out about my mood disorder and hospitalization. The stereotype of people with bipolar disorder appears to be that we are inherently unstable and unreliable. I certainly did not want to be thought of in those terms as a lawyer. As a result of stigma, both societal and self-imposed, I did not share my story outside my family and closest friends for 14 years.
In any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem significant enough to require treatment. By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, one in two have—or have had—a mental illness[i]. The numbers are dramatically higher for lawyers. In 2016 the American Bar Association published a study of nearly 13,000 currently practising lawyers.
Another alarming statistic is that only one-third of people with a mental illness seek help for their condition.[ii] It found that lawyers live with almost four times the level of depression (28%) and anxiety (19%) over the general population. Also, between 21% and 36% of lawyers are considered to be problem drinkers.
Why Do Lawyers Choose Not to Disclose Mental Illness?
Despite the astonishing number of lawyers living with mental illness, there are very few of us speaking openly about our conditions. There are many reasons why people living with mental illness do not disclose. Lawyers face the same issues as people outside the profession in terms of stigma, but the nature of our work means that we may face additional challenges because of our personalities and choice of career. My personal experience lead me to stay silent for several reasons:
Fear of Job Loss/Reduction. People who live with depression and/or anxiety are often catastrophizers. We tend to think the worst is going to happen. Cognitive distortions lead our minds to convince us of things that aren’t true. These distortions include all or nothing thinking. I was sure that if my bosses knew I was bipolar they would think I didn’t have what it takes to manage a busy litigation practice. It’s not that I thought might lose my job if they found out; I was convinced I would.
Even if I wasn’t going to be fired, I was certain that I’d be relegated to doing dog files for the rest of my career if management found out about my mental illness.
Perfectionism. In a 2017 American Bar Association Task Force report on mental health in the legal profession it was reported that many lawyers “have a strong sense of perfectionism and believe they must display this perfectionism at all times”. Many lawyers have a hard time tolerating our mistakes. This reinforces our reluctance to disclose the presence of mental illness.
Stigma. There is tremendous stereotyping of mentally ill people both inside and outside the office. I feared adverse reactions by others. I was afraid that some of my colleagues would disapprove of me having a mental illness and/or disapprove of me revealing my illness. I worried that they would see me as weak at best and a blight on the workplace at worst.
Gossip. Few things travel faster through the grapevine than rumours of mental instability. The legal community is small. I was convinced that if people found out about my mental illness, I’d be a hot topic of conversation around the water cooler in my office as well in other law offices where I was known. In addition, the thought of clients finding out was especially troubling. As a litigator I’m expected to be seen by my clients as strong and unflappable. Many people confuse mental illness with weakness and I didn’t want to risk clients seeing me that way.
No Role Models. During the 14 years of concealing my illness I only ever had one conversation with another person, a teacher, who has bipolar disorder. We had an informative discussion exchanging stories of hospitalizations, treatments and how bipolarity impacts our lives. It helped both of us normalize our illnesses. I did not know of any lawyer who was open about having a major mental illness and I did not try to seek one out. I’m not sure I would have known how to begin such a search.
Fortunately, role models are finally coming out of the woodwork. A case in point is the revelation by Supreme Court Justice Clément Gascon in May 2019:
For over twenty years, I have been dealing with a sometimes insidious illness: depression and anxiety disorders. This is an illness that can be treated and controlled, some days are better than others...[v]
By making this statement, Justice Gascon delivered a powerful message that challenges a common stereotype that people who live with depression and anxiety cannot have successful and productive careers.
Justice Gascon received tremendous support from most people in the legal community, including his Supreme Court colleague, Chief Justice Richard Wagner. A top aide to the Chief Justice assured the media that it wouldn’t affect Justice Gascon’s ability to continue on the bench.[vi]
What does this mean for law offices?
Based on the statistics and the array of reasons why lawyers don’t want to disclose mental illness, it is evident that law offices across the land are teeming with lawyers who have mental health challenges. We may be aware of one or more of our colleagues who has a mental health issue. But there is a virtual guarantee that there are others, whom we aren’t aware of, living with mental health issues in silence.
How I Came to Share My Story
In the summer of 2016, two colleagues spoke with me separately about mental illness in their families. One had a daughter who was an out-patient at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; the other a mother who was an inpatient at that hospital. I listened to their stories without initially revealing mine. But I wondered if it might be helpful to share my thoughts on the importance of being pro-active in dealing with mental illness and what can be done to stave off relapse. After mustering up the courage I took the plunge and shared my story with them. My colleagues didn’t bat an eyelash and we had great conversations.
It felt wonderfully cathartic and empowering to share my story. It was so liberating that, after keeping my illness a secret for 14 years, I decided to come out of what I call the “mental illness closet”. I was in a privileged position: my mood had been stable for many years although I live with a lot of anxiety. I was surrounded by a supportive family and network of friends. I had been in the same workplace for many years and had good job security as a hard worker and effective lawyer. It was unlikely at this stage that I would lose my job if my employer found out that I have bipolar disorder.
I wrote a short essay outlining my story and gave it to a few people in my office. Putting it in writing ensured that I told these colleagues everything I wanted to say without the potential awkwardness of a face-to-face conversation. My colleagues were amazingly supportive. I eventually handed the essay to my legal director. She could not have been more understanding and reassuring.
I decided to do the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life – make a presentation to the 45 members of my office. I gave myself two months to prepare prior to a monthly staff meeting in March 2017. The weeks leading up to the presentation were agony. I had trouble sleeping and an upset stomach. Pangs of anxiety shot through my chest at frequent intervals. Despite the unrelenting stress, I was determined to share my story. To my great relief, the presentation went very well, ending with a standing ovation that brought me to tears.
What started as the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done. Since giving that coming out speech there has been no looking back. Once I had the support of my colleagues, I figured anything was possible.
Within one year, I went from being a condensed ball of angst worrying for years that people would find out about my illness, to seeing that same essay published by the Globe and Mail. I became a friend of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign to end the stigma surrounding mental illness. My story was told nationally. My image was posted on billboards across the country - a surreal experience for someone who had been hospitalized with delusions of grandeur!
Since going public, I’ve spoken to many lawyers about mental illness and have given numerous presentations to large groups on the topic of mental illness in the legal profession. I often see a look of relief on the faces of audience members as I point out the elephant in the room and talk about how to address it. Almost always after a presentation, people share personal stories with me. It is clear that lawyers want and need to talk about mental health.
Senior Lawyers Need to Disclose Mental Illness
The legal profession is in the midst of a mental health crisis. The extent of it has been hammered home to me after hearing so many stories of mental illness time and again.
Having enjoyed such a positive response to my disclosure of bipolarity at work, I have become an advocate for others sharing their stories. I’ve learned from many others that when someone discloses, they tend to receive considerable support from colleagues and may be provided with accommodations. They can also enjoy a sense of relief, since keeping mental illness a secret can be exhausting.
The reality of the workplace is that the greater one’s job security, the easier it is to reveal one’s illness. Junior counsel and others who feel vulnerable may be less inclined to reveal a mental health condition. This is a huge decision; once a person discloses mental illness, it is impossible to retract the news. Lawyers can be in a damned if we do, damned if we don’t dilemma: concerned about the risks of revealing, but if we don’t disclose, unable to access needed support and accommodation.
While sometimes it will be safest to not disclose mental illness at work, if a person can find just one trusted confidant, it can be extremely beneficial. Practically speaking, if someone needs accommodation it may be necessary for them to disclose to at least one person.
The profession is in desperate need of role models, namely, lawyers who live with mental illness and are well established in our positions and prepared to share our stories. According to the American Bar Association, research shows that the most effective way to reduce stigma is through direct contact with someone who has personally experienced a relevant disorder: “Ideally, this person should be a practicing lawyer or law student (depending on the audience) in order to create a personal connection that lends credibility and combats isolation and stigma.”[vii]
Successful lawyers who disclose their mental health challenges can be living testimony to combat many of the myths about mental illness. We are evidence that lawyers can function at a high level and have successful careers. We can be examples for people that living with major mental illnesses can see good outcomes.
At first, talking about mental illness at work could feel awkward. But it can also be wonderfully cathartic, empowering and profoundly helpful to those involved in the conversation.
It is through telling stories of lived experience and allowing room for an open exchange of information and ideas that we normalize mental illness. We can show that living with mental health issues does not mean living a lesser life. It also allows people to get the help we need.
Senior lawyers living with mental illness who are successfully managing their conditions and feel secure in their jobs can demonstrate leadership if they disclose their mental illness to people they see struggling.” To keep quiet while knowing the pain and suffering endured by others in our profession means isolation and stigma will continue. By disclosing, we can vastly improve the lives of other lawyers living with mental illness. It can start by simply tapping the shoulder of a colleague who appears to be struggling. Reaching out can be deeply beneficial to that colleague and intensely satisfying for ourselves.
For me, disclosing my mental illness was the best thing I could do for my career and for personal fulfillment. Surrounded by supportive friends, family and colleagues, I’ve been able to develop the courage and strength to make a contribution to people living with mental illness.
Further, we need senior lawyers to speak publicly both within our offices and to wider audiences. There are an increasing number of counsel who are publishing articles and making presentations to large groups of people which is inspiring. But we need more people to speak out in order to create a critical mass. The impact of stigma surrounding mental illness will not be reduced until isolation ends. Together we can reach out and give hope to lawyers (and others) who are struggling with mental health issues to know that they too can have good outcomes if they get the help they need. We are poised to blow apart stigma surrounding mental illness within our profession and beyond.
The time to share is now.
[i] https://www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/the-crisis-is-real/mental-health-statistics citing Smentanin et al. (2011). The life and economic impact of major mental illnesses in Canada: 2011-2041. Prepared for the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Toronto: Risk Analytica [ii] It found that lawyers live with almost four times the level of depression (28%) and anxiety (19%) over the general population. Also, between 21% and 36% of lawyers are considered to be problem drinkers. [ii] P.R. Krill, R. Johnson, & L. Albert, The Prevalance of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. ADDICTION MED. 46 (2016) referred to in American Bar Association National Association Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being August 14, 2017 [iii] Canadian Mental Health Association https://ridedonthide.com [iv] I am a perfectionist burdened with many imperfections and that has caused me no end of angst, especially at the office. [iv] American Bar Association National Association Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being August 14, 2017 [v] Globe and Mail, May 14, 2019, “ Supreme Court Justice Gascon releases a statement on his health after his disappearance” https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-supreme-court-justice-gascon-releases-statement-on-his-health-after [vi] National Post May 14, 2019, “Clement Gascon, high court justice who went missing, says he had panic attack“ https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/newsalert-clement-gascon-high-court-justice-who-went-missing-had-panic-attack [vii] National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being: Creating a Movement To Improve Well-Being in the Legal Procession (August 14, 2017) at pg. 12 citing P.Ws. Corrigan, S. B. Morris, P. J. Michaels, J. D. Rafacz, & N. Rusch, Challenging the Public Stigma of Mental Illness: a Meta-Analysis of Outcome Studies, 63 Psychiatric Serv. 963 (2012)