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It all began for me at University.
Up to that date, my life had essentially been one of care free fun, with little or no real responsibility. Living with Mum and Dad and doing what made me happy. This was not particularly unusual for someone of my age, I was just young.
University (and especially studying Law), brought pressures that I had never experienced before, such as responsibility for myself and my future. I had moved away from home and was essentially 'a little boy lost'.
I began to wobble, with broken sleep, excessive drinking and a feeling that these changes in my life were all just too much for me. Fortunately, my Mum was an experienced marriage guidance and bereavement counsellor and suggested that I talk to a counsellor at University.
Surely that’s for people with mental health problems? I’m essentially a happy guy and this period will just pass. I didn’t perceive myself as being mentally ill, as I was coping with life but with the help of the counsellor quickly realised that this was my problem. I was coping with, rather than living my life.
This was the start of my journey of talking about life’s challenges, rather than ignoring them. I initially thought that talking would fix my problems but as I matured, I slowly realised that you cannot fix mental health issues. You can, alternatively, understand how you have reached a particular point in your life and work out how you can manage the same.
I graduated from university, went to law school, qualified as a solicitor, became a partner, head of department, studied for an MBA and now manage in Local Government. I can safely say that I have been 'round the block' in my legal career over the last 30 years.
The legal profession can be a harsh environment, in which mental strength has historically been lauded as an essential facet of being a lawyer, with mental illness being viewed as a weakness. I often speak with young lawyers and the level of competition to qualify as a solicitor alone is so ruthless, that to show even a chink in their mental armour would equate to falling at the first hurdle. This is at just the start of their career, so to communicate that mental resilience is an essential tool of their practice, could create an additional pressure, to their already competitive world.
What we perhaps should be talking about is mental awareness and wellbeing. The willingness to accept that we are all human beings who will experience periods of challenge with our mental health and that the same is an acceptable part of practising in a profession that can be extremely demanding.
Throughout my career I have experienced highs and lows but through talking, I have been able to recognise those low or difficult moments and resource an objective opinion through a coach or a counsellor, to work through these periods and emerge with another lesson to help me on my professional journey.
I remember my initial stage of speaking with a counsellor was tinged with shame for being 'weak' but as I grew, I realised that talking about my mental health issues demonstrated strength to communicate my fragility as a human being, no different to anyone else.
Now in my (very late) 40’s, I feel personally confident enough to tell anyone who listens about how talking has helped me. I have passed on details of my counsellor, psychotherapist, and coach contacts, who have subsequently helped scores of my friend and colleagues.
I volunteer as a Law Care support worker and when speaking with my professional peers quickly realised that more often than not, all they wanted to do was talk to a fellow professional who could relate to their problems. They weren’t looking to be fixed, they were just looking to talk.
I don’t purport to have all of the answers or be an expert in the world of mental health but from my first experience of struggling with mental health problems, talking has been one of the key tools that have allowed me to embrace of my next life challenge and understand how that particular situation has impacted upon my mental well-being.
We as lawyers should be encouraged to communicate during these difficult periods in our lives, rather than push away emotions that we wrongly believe to be a sign of weakness.
Talking is the first step to recognising and accepting our position and realising what we can do to help ourselves.
The profession itself is on its own journey to accept and address mental health in the work place and I believe that every firm should provide access to some form of mental health support.
After all, it's good to talk.
Nick O'Neill is the Governance & Business manager at Wirral Borough Council and a LawCare volunteer.
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