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Mental Health and the Law with Professor the Honourable Kevin H Bell AM QC

Professor the Honourable Kevin H Bell AM QC has been a Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, President of the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), leading human rights jurist, and director of the Castan Centre for Human Right Law and Professor of Practise. If you would like to learn more, please see here.

So, as a highly decorated member of the legal community, how have you dealt with stress throughout your career?

Oh, I've experienced stress very considerably throughout my career in a diverse range of contexts.

I'm speaking to you as somebody who's been in the workforce for 40 years. First, I was active in the community legal sector, campaigning or reform, test cases. Run of the mill cases of importance to ordinary people. I think that was probably the most stressful time of my career because it was so uncertain. I was always being asked to undertake responsibilities; we were very under-resourced.

I think, in those days, looking back, a way of coping with stress was to form effective relationships with other people.

I had strong relationships with people, and I tried to support them as they supported me. And that was important. But you know, there's no rule book for dealing with stress when you're a younger person dealing with strange situations.

I had informal mentoring relationships. You know, the idea of mentoring was unknown then, and I'm talking about the late ‘70s, but I did have good relationships with people who were somewhat older than me. I relied on them. Looking back on it, I know how valuable those relationships were, but they were not structured as formal mentoring relationships.

Do you believe that the legal profession generally has effective mechanisms in place to manage and assist legal professionals with their mental health?

No, I don't think it does. It is changing, but very slowly. There is a stigma attached to responding to stress in ways which reveal one's inner self, that one is struggling, that one is not well.

And the idea that you are suffering from stress, might suggest that you are suffering from mental illness, which is even more scary, as if mental illness is itself some kind of thing to be deplored, never to be admitted. This is kind of a complex.

Then there's the problem of the gendered aspect of this where men are likely to feel less comfortable about revealing their need for assistance and help. And so, no, I don't think it does.

The judiciary does not either. The instance of suicide among judges is quite high, and I've experienced suicide among judicial colleagues. And it's a terrible thing. The result of that has been that there is much more emphasis now in judicial institutions of all kinds upon the pastoral aspect, upon support for the judicial officer. There is research being done on this by the Judicial College of Victoria.

It's also changing in the mainstream professions because there are committees within the professional associations who are working on this, but you know, we are at a very early stage in dealing with this.

My message here would be much the same that we need to recognise mental health as a health issue. Not to stigmatize it as something for which the sufferer is to be blamed.

The legal profession is not dealing with it well, should deal with it better, but it's not alone in this regard. And it's connected with systemic failure at the broad social level in this regard.

Do you think there's any particular reason as to why the law has struggled in progressing an understanding of work-life balance and promoting mental health?

It’s the commercial culture of the institution concerned. The values of the firm as a commercial entity to reward output as reflected in fees written, or support for the senior partners, rather in terms of the broader contribution that the younger person may make to the firm. And I've seen this a lot, but it is changing.

Big firms, and I won't name any of them, but I know several of them in Melbourne, which are actively trying to improve their performance in this regard. The support being given on a pro bono basis, too, I think deserves special mention as a change of values in these bigger law firms, but it needs to translate to the working practices, to an intolerance for hours that are really excessive.

Firms need to be intolerant of workers who are working from eight to eight. That shouldn't be seen as a good thing. It should be seen as a sign that the person is not developing wholly as a human being.

Some younger people are nervous to say to their superiors that they’re working too many hours because they do not want to slow their career progression. What advice would you give to young people in that kind of situation about negotiating a work-life balance?

Well, it’s pretty hard in that situation to actually negotiate a work-life balance. If the culture of the firm doesn't permit that kind of negotiation, then you haven't got very many options, really.

So, what I would say is that you need to make a decision yourself about the kind of place in which you wish to work. You need to make a decision yourself about what your own personal values are. You need to make a decision yourself about whether you would want to undertake work with meaning or whether you are the kind of person that obtains meaning from the work itself.

I don't criticize many who make that letter choice that the work itself is what gives them meaning. And they are very successful unstressed, but somewhat narrow human beings.

I couldn't have done that myself and I don't do it now.

Would you say that law school and the legal professional environment fosters competition over caring and assistance?

Yeah, I would. The need for best marks, the elusive first, the prizes. It's a very competitive environment. I've incidentally been a student myself at Oxford University for a couple of years, part-time Masters in International Human Rights Law. So, I was with students, and I felt intensely the competitive pressure, not against them as it were but just in the system.

But the way that we all dealt with that was by being supportive of each other and the relationships I formed with my colleagues endure in many cases, even to now.

What would you say was the most challenging aspect of managing your mental health while simultaneously advancing your professional career?

Look, I think the most difficult thing is when times of crises occur that represent significant added burdens to either private or professional life. It might be an aspect of ill health, unrelated to mental health, but which impacts on you. Because you can't perform at the level needed anymore.

You should be conscious of these aspects being real triggers. You being sick, someone close to you being sick, or there being some problem at work, which gets in the way of performance, or anything else that gets in the way of performance. This is the trigger which can result in stress and anxiety.

I think trying to be self-conscious about the things that are impacting on you and be aware of the way in which these things can affect your own health is really, really important. I think it's very important to take time out as much as needed, so that you can reflect upon these things.

I don't want to sound utopian in any of these remarks. In playing a role in the legal system or in any endeavour like that, there are going to be peaks and troughs in terms of workload. There will be periods when intense work is needed and there's just no way of avoiding it and this will be a time when stress levels will rise.

Is there anything else you would like our audience to know about the league professional profession before entering it? Or any advice generally?

For women reading, read Rachel Doyle QC’s book, Power and Consent.

Unfortunately, sexual discrimination is rife in the legal profession because it reproduces relations of power that make it possible. So, if you're a young woman and you're in a relationship of power with a man in the workplace who's 15 years or so older than you, especially if you're in a setting where, you’re alone with that person, or maybe away from home, just realise that statistically, this is the kind of situation in which bad things can happen.

So, prepare yourself to exercise your own autonomy as a woman.

Thank you for providing ARS with your time and thoughtful answers Professor the Honourable Kevin H Bell.

Interview Conducted and Transcribed by Jessica Darmos

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