Sivummut: Finding balance within the scales of justice
Depression and suicidal thoughts are common for legal professionals, LPAC executive director says
Lawyers and judges in Nunavut are two times more likely to live with depression or die by suicide than lawyers in other Canadian regions, says Adrian Hill, executive director of the Legal Profession Assistance Conference, or “LPAC.”
The little-known fact was part of Hill’s presentations during the 2003 Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention conference in Iqaluit this month.
“There’s never been a more difficult time to be a member of the legal profession, especially in the North, where lawyers are overworked and alienated or isolated [from support networks],” said Hill, 53, a retired lawyer who holds a post-graduate degree in legal ethics and is a CASP board member.
Hill’s findings are rooted in 12 years of research.
“The most common calls [throughout Canada] are lawyers who are the ‘sandwich generation,’ trying to raise their children, pay their bills, and trying to take care of their own parents. We have lawyers calling and saying I don’t know where to turn, and LPAC can provide peer support, professional counselling and educational information,” he said.
Criminal lawyers in Nunavut often deal with clients accused of rape, stabbings and violent assaults. Their lives are affected when prison sentences result in child apprehensions and suicides.
However, it’s not the type or crime or the spin-off tragedies that set Nunavut apart.
What makes this territory unique is, as with any small town, the ongoing contact between lawyers and clients outside office hours. One day a lawyer is requesting that a person be sent to jail. The next month, even the next day, the accused and the lawyer are standing beside each other in the grocery store.
These meetings are a source of stress, even for the thickest-skinned person.
“People are reacting to lawyers negatively numerous times every day. That type of response can change your perception of your whole day,” Hill said.
Clearly, lawyers have educational and economic advantages. But the image of power suits, luxury cars and owning multiple homes is inaccurate, he said.
“Most Canadians would find it hard to believe the financial stress and distress among members of the legal profession. The truth is, most lawyers in Canada make a decent, modest living. Very few earn the big bucks you see in the movies or television. The myth way exceeds the reality,” he said.
Admittedly, other socio-economic groups are more at risk to die by suicide than lawyers and judges. Regardless, Hill said a prestigious job doesn’t preclude a person from feeling overwhelmed or despondent.
“It’s not that the legal profession is different. It’s that the legal profession is the same,” he said.
LPAC is a branch of the Canadian Bar Association and was founded in 1991. The organization offers peer support counselling for stress, alcohol and drug dependency, depression, family problems, eating disorders and gambling.
“We’ve had calls from the North, and that includes Iqaluit. The most common call we get is people asking for help for a colleague or a neighbour. We get calls about alcohol use, abuse and addiction. It’s surprising how much we can do,” Hill said.
LPAC offers support through workshops, referrals, health and wellness courses, and a 24-hour help line. In the past 12 years, LPAC has helped thousands of people in distress, Hill said.
A core of 20 volunteers, many lawyers who have overcome various addictions, work as counsellors.
Hill, a recovering alcoholic, says he beat his addiction because of an intervention early in his career.
He said stressed-out lawyers and Inuit communities share a common bond.
“If you look at the [suicide] risk factors for Inuit, there is a surprisingly close correlation to risk factors I would identify in the legal profession. Loss of control, alienation, isolation, addictions and depression,” he said.
A common problem is substance abuse.
“It’s very easy at the end of the day to pick up a drink to relax or end up on tranquilizers or pain killers.… Quite legitimate at first, then fast-forward a couple of years and the thing they’ve been turning to for help has become a problem in itself,” Hill said.
Hill offered nine sessions – seven during the conference and two sessions for lawyers and court workers – during his recent visit to Iqaluit.
His goal is to see lawyers’ assistance programs established in each of the three territories.
“Our dream is loss prevention and trying to prevent things as early as possible, which is why we’re in the law schools and the bar admission course. A dozen years ago we’d almost have to beg to get into those places, as if they’d be doing us a favour,” he said.
“In a place like Nunavut, we want to make sure the lawyers, the judges, the administrators of justice and families are aware we exist and they can call us. The risks may be higher here but this is a very supportive and loving community based on traditional Inuit culture. People look out for one another. These protective factors are examples many of us in the south could learn from.”
The LPAC Web site is www.lpac.ca.