Careers, Study and Well-being / Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Life / Wellness

The Professional Hazard of Mental Health Issues

When I was six my school got very excited about Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats. This was an innovation methodology, applied to education, and intended to teach children about different perspectives, and how to navigate their own minds. There was the yellow hat to think about the good things about an idea or situation, the black hat to think about the negative things, the red hat to think about the emotions, etc. We children were not told why we were being taught about this; we just had many lessons about wearing different hats and had to do many, many drawings of hats.

I thought this whole concept was incredibly dumb. If Twitter had been around when I was six, my hot takes would have burned up the internet. Why would you THINK about THINKING (blue hat)?

I can see now, as an adult who reads about education paradigms for fun, that I was lucky to attend a school who tried to teach us about how minds work so early. I spend a not insignificant amount of time talking about the Brain School I one day dream of opening, so you could say I am a convert.

But why the shift in attitude? For one thing I grew from a child scoffing at Edward de Bono into an adult with a history of anxiety, depression and trauma, all of which I had to learn about manually as an adult. For another, I became a law student and then a lawyer, and it turns out lawyers are terrible with this stuff.

As things stand, mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorders and suicidality are, I like to think, professional hazards for law students and lawyers.They are to the legal profession what logging accidents are to forestry workers: not universal, but much more likely in that line of work.They are also dangerous if not foreseen and cared for properly.

Research has shown that law students and lawyers have higher rates of mental illness than the general population.  American studies on the issue have shown that the shift happens at law school, too, meaning the population of students starting law school has average rates of mental illness, whereas the graduating classes have higher rates.

The reasons for this include all kinds of systemic, complex issues that I won’t get into today. Industry leadership is working on some of these, but there is a long way to go. But we do not have to wait for them entirely. My preference, always, is for systemic and cultural change, but I work with individuals trying to navigate their own lives. Until we get to a realm of subsidized psychologists and the universal option to work part time, there are things we can do as individuals. It is helpful, when making decisions about your own life, to have ways to empower yourself against hazards of any kind, even if technically the hazards should be mitigated by the people with the power to make systemic and cultural change.

One of the ways to mitigate the hazard, or help yourself if you are already dealing with a mental health issue, is to learn how everything works. I do not know many lawyers who understand how brains and nervous systems actually work. Who understand how the limbic system and amygdala influence the conscious, cognitive systems in the brain. Who understand how schemas shape one’s interpretations of others’ words and actions, or how emotions and trauma play out in the body. If we all did, I think we would both have far more non-judgemental compassion for ourselves and others, and likely the culture of law could be reshaped to account for how brains and bodies actually work. It would be so beautiful, you guys. We would also, without a doubt, be better lawyers.

As a young lawyer with anxiety and depression I spent a lot of time desperately wishing away the illnesses (not a good treatment strategy) and fearing being found out at work. At five years in I changed my mode of practice to a sole practice in part so I could have more control over my hours and methods of practice. When I did, I spoke to several other lawyers, a lot of them barristers and sole practitioners, who also suffered from anxiety or depression, or were recovering alcoholics The most common refrain when I disclosed my diagnoses over coffee was a cheerful, “Oh, me too!”. These were lawyers who remained successful and capable, just with these particular challenges that they navigated as the need arose. It was liberating to hear them speak so openly.

I know for many it does not feel safe to speak openly about their experience. But let me tell you, mental health issues are not de facto reasons not to study or practise law. They just might be reasons to make particular choices around mode of practice, or have certain boundaries around care for self. They are reason to be deliberate in reducing the hazard legal practice represents through education, medical care and work with a psychologist. But there are innumerable lawyers and law students practising and studying with these challenges, and many of them successfully so.

If we treat mental illness as a professional hazard, we can treat it like other hazards. We can recognize systemic and individual factors that make it more likely. We can educate ourselves about risk. We can take precautions and preventive measures against it.

The best time to start this work is as a law student. (Yay! More reading! I know. I’m sorry.) Whether or not you have an active diagnosis or even are struggling with something you suspect might be close to these issues, you can learn about brains and nervous systems now. Obviously it goes without saying that if the thought has occurred to you that you might need some help with these issues, you should get yourself to a doctor or counsellor. But even if you haven’t got there, if you intend to work in a legal role of some kind, you would do well to treat mental health issues as a professional hazard and learn about them pre-emptively.

You could start with Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is a fascinating examination of how minds work. Then maybe you read Mike McKinney’s All or Nothing: Bringing Balance to the Achievement-Oriented Personality. If you are especially sensitive, perhaps you read The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron, or if your sensitivity is coupled with anxiety, First, You Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson. If depression is more your issue, or you just want to know how different parts of the brain interact, perhaps you dive into The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb, which has some of the most succinct explanations of neuroscience I’ve read.  If you feel the need to numb feelings with alcohol or food or anything else pleasurable, maybe you read The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden.

Most things worth doing carry hazards of some kind. For some the right choice might be to avoid the hazard altogether, but for most it is possible to mitigate the hazard. The hazard will not disappear, but you will be better equipped to handle it if it pops up.

I will be talking about mental health and legal study and practice a lot over the coming months. These issues are common and terrible on their own, but my hope is that by talking more about them, the additional layer of terribleness that comes from fear and stigma might ease a little. And I promise, it might even be fun.



Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at Check out her website for more details at: Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.


Best podcast episodes for this topic: Episode 11, with Clayton, and Episode 15 with Mike McKinney.

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