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Candidly confronting depression

Candidly confronting depression

A number of prominent top-tier partners have spoken out about their personal experiences with depression in a bid to raise awareness of the illness in the legal profession, writes Claire Chaffey…

A number of prominent top-tier partners have spoken out about their personal experiences with depression in a bid to raise awareness of the illness in the legal profession, writes Claire Chaffey

When it comes to depression and the legal profession, the truth is shocking: over one third of all Australian lawyers will, at some stage in their careers, suffer from the mental illness.

For whatever reason - and no doubt there are many - research has shown that law students and lawyers are more prone to suffering from anxiety and depression than any other profession.

And for the legal community, and society as a whole, the effects of this simmering and malevolent illness can be tragic.

One such tragedy was the death in 2004 of Tristan Jepson - a young lawyer who took his own life after a battle with severe depression.

No-one saw it coming, and his death had a resonating impact on his family and friends, as well as colleagues and the wider legal community.

Sadly, it took the loss of a young and promising life to truly bring it home that depression is real, depression is widespread, and depression kills.

Now, six year's after Tristan's death, legal industry leaders have authoritatively placed depression and anxiety on the agenda with the official launch of a powerful new initiative by the Depression & Anxiety Working Group (DAWG).

DAWG was formed in early 2009 following disturbing revelations in a report titled Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and legal practitioners (also known as The Hickie Report) and is a collaborative effort between the chief executive and managing partners of Allens Arthur Robinson, Mallesons Stephen Jaques, Blake Dawson, Freehills and Clayton Utz, as well as the College of Law and numerous faculties of law.

The initiative, known as [email protected], includes as its centrepiece a poignant and revealing short film about mental health in the legal profession.

The film, launched last week at a [email protected] event hosted by Allens, features some of the country's top partners and lawyers - from Allens, Freehills and Mallesons - speaking openly and candidly about their own battles with depression.

Freehills partner Matthew Stutsel was among those featured in the film, and he spoke courageously and frankly about his battle with depression which led him to attempt to take his own life.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Stutsel said he wanted to speak out in order to help those who are suffering as he did.

"Knowing how difficult it was for me to speak about it as I was suffering it, and having a couple of friends who are currently suffering from depression, made me want to help," he said.

"I am really hoping that I can help someone before they get to the stage that I got to, and certainly before they get to the stage where they do something they can't turn back on. That's the difference I'd really like to make."

Stutsel also expressed a desire to inspire change within the other professions, and sees the potential impact and relevance of the film going beyond the legal profession.

"As lawyers, maybe we can lead the professions and help our society at large," he said.

"Depression is such a horrid thing, the suicide rate in Australia is so high, and the loss of joy of life amongst those affected is so great, if we can restore that, it is a wonderful thing."

Another who appeared in the film speaking of his battle with mental illness was former premier of Western Australia, Professor Geoff Gallop.

In his keynote address prior to the film's screening, Gallop relied on the wisdom of singer Leonard Cohen to sum up his feelings on the issue. "Everybody knows that the boat is leaking, everybody knows, everybody knows. That's how it goes, everybody knows, everybody's got this broken feeling," he said.

"We know there is something that we need to tackle and we need to deal with ...We try and avoid the issue but we know it's there ... and on too many occasions that leads to tragedy and loss."

Among the several hundred attendees at the initiative's launch was Marie Jepson, Tristan Jepson's mother and founder of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation.

"I thought [the film] was incredibly powerful. People made themselves very vulnerable and were incredibly courageous in how honest they were about their experiences and its impact on them. They risked a lot," she said.

"It can only have a positive effect in letting people know that there are people who understand and who feel as they do."

Freehills partner Peter Butler, one of the drivers behind the initiative, said he found the film "absolutely inspirational" and applauded those involved for revealing intimate details about a topic which is so personal and so difficult to confront. "Depression is a hard thing to talk about," he said.

"What everyone working on this initiative wanted to do was try to end the stigma and create an environment where it is okay to say, 'I'm not feeling very well at the moment. I need help. I can't do it on my own.'"

Butler was also complimentary of the cooperation shown by firms in facilitating what is a significant step forward.

"The thing that the law firms have been doing really unselfishly is sharing what they're doing internally to improve resilience ... They are doing it without any fear of the competitive nature of the legal profession," he said.

"We are learning from each other. No-one's got a monopoly on the perfect working environment."

The film will be incorporated into the College of Law's practical legal training curriculum, with a pilot to be run this year, followed by fully fledged implementation in 2011.

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