Advocating for a Mentally Healthy Attitude Toward Mental Health

A couple of things you may not know about heart surgery: patients are given “cough pillows.” They use them the first few weeks after surgery, hugging them to their bodies to lessen the pain that comes with coughing, sneezing or even laughing after your sternum has been cut open.

And did you know that severe depression is often a side-effect of open-heart surgery?

Two years ago, CBA President Ray Adlington was recovering from surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, clutching his heart pillow and too depressed to do much more than go from his recliner to his bed, where he stared blankly at a television. He could barely contemplate a shower.

And he wondered if that’s what his life was going to be like now.

You don’t have to be a lawyer – or a heart patient – to experience depression, but it is true that depression is rampant in the legal profession. A recent University of Toronto study, which compared studies done in the U.S. and Canada, showed that the more successful lawyers in both countries were, the more likely they were to be depressed.

The U.S. study looked at lawyers called to the bar in 2000; those in the Canadian study had been called around 2010.

Jonathan Koltai, a co-author of the U of T study, was quoted in a Globe and Mail article as saying, “People working in environments with more income on average actually tend to experience more depressive symptoms, and that’s because of their higher level of stress exposure.” Lack of work-life balance is another major factor, he added.

While the income-depression link is a new nuance, the fact that lawyers are disproportionately affected as a group by depression, addiction and mental health issues is not news. And just as the larger society has started – slowly – becoming more open to talking about these issues, so is the legal profession. Several recent CBA leaders – former CBA national President Michele Hollins, and former OBA President Orlando da Silva, for example – have candidly discussed the impact depression had on their lives and careers.

Three years ago the CBA, in partnership with Bell Let’s Talk and the Mental Disorders Society of Canada, created an online course to help those in the legal profession and their families learn more about the signs and symptoms of mental health issues, and how to seek help for them.

Ray Adlington’s wife recognized his signs of depression, and helped him to get help. Even then, Ray says, going back to work was a struggle because he didn’t feel the same sense of purpose that he’d had before the surgery – and that drive to find a sense of purpose is one part of how he came to be sitting in the President’s chair for the 2018-19 term.

His experience has made Ray eager to shine some light on the elephant in the dark corner of the legal profession’s room. He’d like to make discussing mental health and wellness issues as common as discussing the flu that hits the office every year.

“Responding to the adverse impact upon the mental health of many in our profession caused by the stress of increased demand for instant responsiveness is critical,” Ray said in an interview with CBA National magazine this fall.

Noting that it’s the role of the CBA to advocate on behalf of lawyers, he says, “I think it should also advocate for mentally healthy environments for lawyers to work in.”

— Kim Covert, Editor, Publications
Canadian Bar Association


  1. “People working in environments with more income on average actually tend to experience more depressive symptoms, and that’s because of their higher level of stress exposure.” I’m compelled to comment because in my opinion words do and how we phrase things do matter.

    In this instance, the above quote would have it appear that people at the lower end of the income spectrum would not be as susceptible to depression as individuals in the higher echelons of the income bracket. Lets be careful here, with communities affected by violence – domestic or otherwise, drug and alcohol abuse – these too are symptoms of depression. The people living in such communities are usually working in low-wage jobs and surrounded by failing infrastructure. So I would suggest that just as high income earners are under a great deal of stress to make more money so too are low income earners who are also surrounded by unsuitable living and working conditions prone to stress leading to depression. Perhaps both ends of the income spectrum need to be examined to better address the blight of those suffering from this debilitating condition.