In Praise of the Honourable Justice Clement Gascon

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Recently, the Honourable Justice Clement Gascon of the Supreme Court of Canada addressed his momentary absence from work on May 8th, 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 better than others. On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 8, affected both by the recent announcement of a difficult and heart-rending career decision and by a change in medication, I conducted myself in an unprecedented and unaccustomed manner by going out without warning and remaining out of touch for several hours. I can neither explain nor justify what I understand to have been a panic attack, and I wish to apologize most profusely to all those who suffered as a result. This health issue has been taken care of and treated with the necessary medical support. I confirm that I am in good health, and am fully capable of performing my duties as a judge.

Justice Gascon’s remarks are laudable. By being open about his personal health, Justice Gascon has reduced the stigma in our profession around discussing depression and anxiety. Two illnesses which affect many lawyers.

In the CBC article, titled “Successful lawyers more likely to experience mental health problems, Toronto study finds”, the writers note that a University of Toronto study compared two national surveys of thousands of lawyers in both Canada and the United States. “In both countries, researchers found a strong correlation between signs of depression and traditional markers of career success. Lawyers holding down jobs at large firms in the private sector, widely considered to be the most prestigious roles, were most likely to experience depressive symptoms.” The larger the firm, the more lucrative the position, the higher the odds that the lawyer suffered from depressive symptoms. This was partly attributed to the skewed work-life balance at larger firms.

Similarly in the New York Times article, The Lawyer, The Addict, Eilene Zimmerman, discusses the plight of lawyers. Her ex-husband’s death from a drug overdose happened, despite (maybe because of) his success as an intellectual property lawyer in Silicon Valley.

Zimmerman indicates that the heavy stress on him and the pressure to compete, meet client demands, gain clients, all contributed to his drug abuse. “The history on his cellphone shows the last call he ever made was for work. Peter, vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness, had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call.”

Peter’s struggle is not unique. Zimmerman highlights a 2016 report from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association on substance abuse amongst lawyers. “Over all, the results showed that about 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, while 28 percent struggle with mild or more serious depression and 19 percent struggle with anxiety.”

Professional stress contributes to the rates of substance abuse amongst lawyers. The adversarial process of the opposing side constantly trying to “undo your work” only adds to the stress.

Despite the prevalence of anxiety and depression amongst lawyers, there is a culture of silence. Professor Daniel Angres states in the New York Times article that “Law firms have a culture of keeping things underground, a conspiracy of silence,” he said. “There is a desire not to embarrass people, and as long as they are performing, it’s easier to just avoid it.”

What’s even more troubling is that that the deterioration of lawyers’ health often begins in law school. Zimmerman points out that law students tend to shift their focus in law school. They shift their focus from the value of helping people to extrinsic factors. These extrinsic factors include: grades, honours and potential career income. However, the value of grades, honours, and income have little influence on a lawyer’s overall mental health. In response, law schools are starting to address improving the mental health of their students.

Similarly, as a profession, we are just beginning to break down the “conspiracy of silence” around mental health. I admire Justice Gascon in contributing to the dismantling of this deadly silence.

(Views are my own own and do not reflect the views of any organization. This article was originally posted on slaw.ca.)