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The pros and cons of discussing mental health issues in the workplace


A group of lawyers has written what they call a groundbreaking book about how mental health is perceived in the legal profession.

"The Right Not to Remain Silent" is a series of candid memoirs by lawyers who have lived with mental health and addiction issues.

One of the authors, Beth Beattie, senior counsel to the Ontario Minister of the Attorney General, joined CTV Morning Live's Rosey Edeh to discuss it.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Rosey Edeh: This is really something, that a group of attorneys would get together and write a book about the right to not remain silent. Many times, you have a case, you might tell your clients, 'You need to let us do the talking. Be quiet,' but attorneys have gotten together to talk about why it can be very important to talk about your mental health in the workplace.

Beth Beattie: Absolutely.

RE: Can I just talk to your about your background and your journey through mental health issues while working?

BB: I've been a lawyer for 30 years and when I was a first-year associate at one of the big Bay Street firms, I suffered from a very deep depression and I got help for it and I went on anti-depressants and I did very well. About six years later, I had a floridly psychotic episode, meaning I lost touch with reality and long story short, I ended up being admitted to the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, where I was very well taken care of.

The problem I had was two themes played out. I was convinced I was going to get sick again, either manic or depressed. I'm no one special; a lot of people with bipolar disorder relapse, so I was afraid of that. I was also mortified at the thought that people would find out about my condition because as a lawyer, I'm supposed to be seen as unflappable and strong, and if I worry about my clients, opposing counsel knowing about my condition, they may think there's a chink in the armour, we're going to go after her.

RE: When did you get to the point when you said you can talk about this?

BB: It took 14 years and during those 14 years, I was a condensed ball of angst, worrying about people finding out. When I turned 50, I was financially secure, I had been at my job for awhile, they knew I worked hard, so I thought I would take the plunge because I think I can help other people who are feeling lonely and isolated.

RE: You and several other attorneys wrote this book, "The Right Not to Remain Silent". You wrote a section about disclosing mental health issues at work. Let's talk about the pros and cons of disclosing mental health issues at work. The first pro would be—

BB: Experiencing a wonderful sense of relief because keeping these things quiet is exhausting.

RE: Another pro is you become a role model.

BB: Absolutely. We need people, especially senior members of the profession, speaking out about our conditions and showing that we can have very successful practices while living with mental health issues.

RE: And you would feel invigorated by sharing your story because I would imagine there's a sense of release and relief.

BB: Absolutely. It was a cathartic experience. I was so scared to do it and then I opened up the floodgates and was like, well, this is so much fun, I'm just going to keep advocating.

RE: And then, you get the support you need. When you disclosed that you had some mental health issues, did you get a flood of support and did you find you were not alone?

BB: Absolutely. I made a presentation at our monthly staff meeting, I told my story for 20 minutes, and my colleagues stood up and gave me a standing ovation. When I knew that I had the support of my colleagues, I knew I could go out and be a mental health advocate.

RE: Let's talk about the cons now of disclosing your mental health issues at work. You feel ostracized by coworkers.

BB: That can happen. It didn't happen to me but it could potentially happen to others.

RE: Feeling like people are gossiping about you.

BB: Yes, you can feel that there might be gossip, whether it's happening or not, you get that paranoia. For people like me who also lived with an anxiety disorder, we worry.

RE: And risk of being excluded.

BB: That's the reality if you have a lousy boss, if you have a lousy management team, you may feel that you're not getting the quality of work that you would like to get.

RE: I feel like the pros outweigh the cons, here, because there are a lot of good points to releasing that issue that you have, disclosing it and then feeling empowered by it.

BB: In a sense, I think these cons are actually pros because I didn't feel any of them, I didn't experience any of them. My biggest fear about it being a real downside to disclose, I didn't feel that.

"The Right Not to Remain Silent" is available on Lexis Nexis. All royalties are donated to CAMH. Top Stories

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