Getting serious about mental health

Olympic champion Clara Hughes promotes mental health awareness at UAlberta Law.

Ben Freeland - 13 March 2017

What do lawyers, accountants, and high-performance athletes have in common? All three lines of work are characterized by high levels of stress and higher-than-average reported rates of mental illness.

In an effort to continue the burgeoning dialogue about the importance of mental health and wellness in Canada, and to combat the stigma that still remains - not just in the legal and accounting professions, but across society as a whole - UAlberta Law joined forces with the Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society (Assist) and the Chartered Professional Accountants of Alberta's Assist program to host a talk about the issue on the evening of March 8 featuring mental health advocate and celebrated Olympian Clara Hughes.

"As an athlete I learned to train my body and hone my focus, but nobody taught me how to take care of my mental health," Hughes told the crowd of 250 gathered at the Timms Centre.

"It took me until seven years ago to learn how to talk about this stuff."

In addition to her evening talk, Hughes also took time that afternoon to meet with UAlberta Law students for a question-and-answer session.

The one-in-five, and the other four

In both of her addresses, Hughes repeatedly referred to herself as being of the 'one-in-five', referring to the roughly one-in-five Canadians who will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives. In Hughes' case, she found herself consumed by clinical depression at the very pinnacle of her career as an Olympic speed skater and road cyclist, a condition that ground her to a halt for a number of years after the 1996 Atlanta Games.

But while much of her message was aimed at her fellow one-in-fivers, Hughes also directly addressed the remaining four-out-of-five, those who, while perhaps free from mental illness themselves, are in all likelihood related to or otherwise close to those who suffer from such afflictions.

"All of us are connected to mental illness in one way or another," she said.

"Furthermore, while one-out-of-five of us deal with mental illness directly, five-out-of-five of us have 'mental health' that we manage."

For the four-out-of-five Canadians who, while not suffering directly from depression or other mental ailments, most likely have family members or friends who do, she recommends working at becoming a better listener.

"We live in such a hyperactive world, and I often worry that we're losing our capacity to just sit down and listen. We all need to take time out of our day to sit down, turn our phones over, and be present."

Connecting through struggle

During Hughes' afternoon session at UAlberta Law, students also heard from Maria O'Boyle, the mother of Michael O'Boyle, a 2004 UAlberta Law graduate who took his own life in 2009 after a lengthy - and private - struggle with depression. Included in the crowd to hear Hughes and Mrs. O'Boyle speak were members of the UAlberta Law Golden Bearristers rugby team, on which O'Boyle played while a law student.

"We could hear Michael's suicide note speaking to us," said Mrs. O'Boyle in her address.

"It was telling us that it was time to share our story with the world."

She then urged the audience to speak out about mental illness and to work to help break down the stigma, while offering support to those who are struggling.

"Losing our son to depression and suicide has been unbearable to us. The pressure of [the law profession] is intense, and it creates situations where all of us can falter. You all need to find your inner strength while also offering support to those close to you."

UAlberta Law recently launched the Michael O'Boyle Mental Health & Wellness Fund, which aims to raise $100,000 to provide support for student mental health and wellness activities at the Faculty.

Hughes echoed Mrs. O'Boyle's plea in her evening presentation, noting that she too had hidden her depression from family.

"I hid it from my family because I thought it would hurt them if they knew I was broken," she said.

"I was broken inside, but I learned how to hide it. I thought I could ride out the trauma, but I couldn't. Nobody is strong or better than this, and nobody can do it on their own."

A plea for open conversation

Much mention was made, both at the afternoon and evening sessions, of the prevalence of mental health challenges in the athletics, accounting, and legal professions. As Hughes noted, these three career paths have greater proximity than one might imagine - a number of her fellow Team Canada alums have gone on to careers in these fields - while also sharing expectations of stoic determination in the face of adversity.

In his opening addresses at both events, UAlberta Law Dean Paul Paton noted that anywhere between 20 and 30 per cent of lawyers suffer from depression and related mental health conditions at some point in their career. But, as Hughes noted, the impact extends way beyond any single profession.

"Last year half a million Canadians were off work because of a mental health condition," she said.

"That's a lot of people being sidelined. If there's one thing I can encourage you all to do today, it's to connect with each other, to seek help, and to be the best support you can be to one another."

Dean Paton echoed this sentiment, adding that UAlberta Law has a duty to provide students with access to mental health and wellness information and resources, not only to help break the stigma surrounding mental illness, but also to better equip students as they enter a challenging profession.

"Mental health and wellness for law students and lawyers has been a signature priority of my Deanship since I started at the Faculty in July 2014," he said.

"As Dean, it's been a privilege for me to help expand the range of mental health services available to UAlberta Law students, including the pilot program the Faculty arranged with the Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society that has provided free on-site counselling and referral services for law students since Fall 2015. Working in conjunction with the student-run Mental Health and Wellness Committee, together, we're laying the foundation for a healthier legal profession."

To support the Michael O'Boyle Mental Health & Wellness Fund, click here.