Who are you, and why did you decide to share your story?
My name is Steve, I’m 30 and work as a Consultant Mental Health Lawyer within the West Midlands of the United Kingdom.
I can remember dealing with mental health issues whilst I was studying at University as I suffered chronic anxiety, and didn’t know how to manage or cope with it. Some days it was a success If I got out of bed and that’s all I did that day. I knew I couldn’t carry on living like this and that’s when I realised I needed help, which I discussed with my family and sought professional help from a psychologist privately.
How did you become aware of your mental health issues?
I felt a great sense of pressure to achieve while studying law, and this weighed heavily upon me throughout my 5 years at university as I have always been an individual that has set the bar so high, it is sometimes unachievable. This led to me being an “insecure overachiever”, wanting to please everyone and finding it extremely difficult to say no. I still do to this day, although it is getting slightly easier.
I also suffered a bereavement during my 3rd year of university, when my grandmother who I was very close to and fond of, passed away. This hit me hard, and I had an even lower sense of self-worth. I retracted further into my shell, becoming more engrossed in my thoughts and less on my university work which suffered as a result, along with my mental health.
This was made even worse by the feeling that I couldn’t open up to my friends, as I thought they would judge me and not understand how I was feeling, so I bottled it up. Looking back now, I realise this wasn’t a healthy coping mechanism
Anxiety on the job
Once I had completed my law degree, I continued to suffer from anxiety during my training contract to become a lawyer. I didn’t feel confident about raising this with management at the law firm, as mental health doesn’t seem to be discussed within the legal profession and very much excluded. In my opinion, people don’t disclose it due to one of 3 things:
- You are scared that you would be judged as “weak”
- You are scared that you would be deemed “not fit for purpose” or “not able to do the job”
- You are scared that you would lose the respect of your fellow peers / professionals.
Particularly, during my 3rd seat of my training contract when I was studying family law (this experience still scars me emotionally to this date) although it’s difficult to articulate how I felt, some days I hoped I would have a car accident so I wouldn’t have to go into work. My thoughts got that bad due to the way I was being treated by the head of department within that seat. My family knew something was wrong, as I was not myself throughout those 6 months, but were unable to do anything to help me because of my mindset at that particular time.
Getting professional help
Seeing the psychologist helped a lot. She gave me the tools and sound advice on how to cope with my feelings of low self-worth, low self-esteem, constantly wanting to please everyone and wanting to push the bar higher, making it almost impossible to achieve any of the goals I set for myself. Even though I have got better at managing my anxiety by breaking things down into little segments, thereby making them more manageable it never fully goes away. As I am writing this blog, I have feelings of anxiety, constantly judging and comparing myself against other people, over analyzing situations… it remains a work in progress.
Being a mental health lawyer
In my job I represent the most vulnerable of our society, who have been detained or “sectioned” (in the UK this means getting sent to a mental health facility) under The Mental Health Act 1983. I advocate my clients’ views at tribunal hearings to either be discharged to leave hospital immediately and live a relatively normal life, or to receive treatment in hospital as a voluntary patient, without the restrictions imposed on them under Section 3.(Section 3 means that you are detained in a mental health facility for medical treatment and this can last up to 6 months.)
In the UK, people can be detained under The Mental Health Act, if they are deemed to have a mental disorder of a nature or degree which warrants admission to hospital for either a period of assessment or to receive medical treatment, and that they are deemed to be a risk to their own health and safety or for the protection of other people.
This experience can be traumatising for those with mental health issues. As a reader of this blog, you may know that not all mental health issues are so extreme and that even for serious conditions such as bipolar, schizophrenia or personality disorder, they don’t always need to result in hospital treatment. What’s more, the section restricts your liberty, as you can be forcibly medicated and cannot leave the hospital, without the expressed consent of the doctor who can grant what’s known as “section 17 leave”, which allows you to go outside of the hospital, for a set period of time, either with staff (escorted) or on your own (unescorted).
Imagine being forced into a mental health institution and then that, it can be frightening and isolating! This is why I work to help these people and advocate for their rights. Most people are not aware of the law as it relates to mental health, which makes it difficult when it’s suddenly being used against you.
The most common sections used are as follows:
- Section 2 – admission to a mental health facility for a period of assessment, this can last up to 28 days, and you have the right to appeal this within the first 14 days of admission.
- Section 3 – admission for a period of medical treatment, this initially lasts up to 6 months, and can be extended for a further 6 months, and then yearly, if the Dr believes detention under Section is still required. You have the right to appeal this within the first 6 months, second 6 months and then yearly.
- Section 17a – this is more commonly known as a Community Treatment Order (CTO for short) and allows you to live either at home or in supported / shared accommodation with certain conditions imposed on you, for example; take medication, engage with the community team, and refrain from alcohol or substance abuse. Initially, this lasts for 6 months, and can be renewed further if both the Dr and AMHP (Approved Mental Health Practitioner) agree with it. You can ask to be discharged from the CTO by applying to the Tribunal. Furthermore, if you fail to comply with one of the conditions, the Dr can recall you back into hospital, but ONLY if there is a CLEAR DETERIORATION in your mental health.
What would you like people to know about mental health and the law?
The one thing I feel people should understand about mental health law, is that it’s a very rewarding area to practice in, and provides huge job satisfaction. Although it can be very demanding and challenging, you are changing lives and helping people. If you are a people person who likes to interact with others, this is certainly a career worth pursuing.
I’ll be honest, I fell into this career as I was unaware that Mental Health Law existed – it’s not widely advertised within the UK legal profession. However, specialising in it was the best thing I ever did, no one day is the same, you are representing the most vulnerable people of society, and you really make a difference. That’s a really good feeling to have, and what drives me to achieve the best possible outcome for my clients.
What are you next steps regarding your own mental health?
Looking at the present, I am now the Managing Director of my own company Lawlor’s Law Limited, 3 years qualified as a solicitor and with 10 years experience within the field of Mental Health Law. I’ve also created a successful podcast called Legal Wolf, designed to promote mental health, raise awareness and tackle the stigma on a global scale.
I still suffer with anxiety, but I no longer let it control my life thanks to the coping strategies I learned from the psychologist, and overthe years of lived experience.
If I could give you one piece of advice, do not let anxiety define who you are, you are a great person with amazing characteristics and will succeed in life, in your own way. Do not let people tell you otherwise, because YOU are GREAT and don’t forget that.
Where can people find you?
Steve and Lawlor’s law