Criminal legal practitioners regularly come face to face with the darkest parts of humanity, however their resulting trauma remains unacknowledged by the judicial system itself, despite a resounding call for change.
By Maya Skidmore.
“To the best of my knowledge, I am the first and only sitting judicial officer to talk about their own experience of mental health” says County Magistrate David Heilpern.
“There is a real stigma around talking about mental health issues in the criminal justice system”, he said.
In his address to the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation last year, David Heilpern spoke out about his own struggles with vicarious trauma, when he was magistrate for a child sexual assault case in 2005.
“I woke up in the witching hour, screaming, sweating and panicked”, he wrote in a 2017 paper for the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation.
“I thought I was immune. I thought I was very professional and had a good resistance to my work but these things can creep up on you”, he said.
It has been ten years since the launch of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, founded by the grieving parents of 26-year-old Tristan Jepson, a UNSW law graduate and solicitor who took his own life in 2004. This non for profit has been working since 2008 to try and provide legal practitioners with mental health support.
Heilpern however, says that “the legal system still has a long way to go”.
“There’s been two magistrates who’ve killed them selves in the past 12 months.There’s also a lot of criminal lawyers who kill themselves.” He said.
“It’s absolutely tragic.”
According to a 2008 study by Sydney University professor and psychiatrist Ian Hickie, 33% of barristers and 20% of solicitors suffer from depression, with 40% of law students in 2008 requiring medical attention for their mental health.
Shirley Till, clinical psychologist, says that vicarious trauma within the legal world, particularly within the criminal justice system, is something that has been “neglected”.
“There is a lack of awareness of it, and as a result I think that the people who suffer from vicarious trauma don’t get the help and support that they need”, she said.
Magistrate Carmel Forbes, former Deputy Chief Coroner of NSW, spoke about a horrific case she was confronted with while state coroner. A family of four were involved in a tragic car accident on the South Coast, where everyone but the mother died. The woman was burnt so badly that her face was left unrecognizable.
“She stood up and spoke at the inquest, and it was just chilling in the courtroom”. Forbes said.
“She had to have parts of her body amputated…it was like living pain, she was tortured, she had lost her husband and kids and was in physical pain”.
The woman took her own life a year after the inquest.
“Cases like that…seeing human suffering, humans so deeply in their grief”, Forbes said.
“I wont ever forget it”, she said.
Peter Skidmore is a legal aid criminal and family lawyer who has been working in criminal law for almost thirty years.
“What is confronting for me is seeing people who are in great distress…because you feel their pain, but you feel powerless to stop it”, Skidmore said.
“The difficulty in law is that often you don’t have colleagues who are tuned in to noticing when you are genuinely not coping or when your resilience runs out. And in our current system, I can’t see that changing in a hurry”, he said.
In Heilpern’s opinion, mental illness continues to persists in the judicial system because of the heavy stigma that is attached to it.
He attributes this to the legal world’s bravado culture, describing the mainstream attitude to mental illness as “just toughen up…cope with it, deal with it”.
Acting in a way that is contrary to this, is, he says, is “so rare”.
To be vulnerable about one’s mental health is something that Heilpern believes carries a subtle, yet real penalty for practitioners.
“If I wasn’t near the end of my judicial career I probably wouldn’t have come forward. I’ve only got a couple of years left before I intend to retire.” He said.
“For me, it was probably a lot easier to come forward then those who have ambitions to go into higher courts or take on more responsibility.”
It is this stigmatization that has prevented the enactment of real change, Hielpurn says, it limiting the implementation of effective strategies that could alleviate suffering, people afraid to come forward, lest it effect their standing in the courts.
His own decision to speak however, evoked a reaction he was not expecting.
“I was overwhelmed by the number of judges, magistrates, senior judges who contacted me saying ‘thank god you’re speaking up, because here’s my experience”. He said.
Calling for change.
The Tristan Jespson Foundation is one of the only institutions that specifically targets mental health for legal practitioners. However, Hielpurn believes that this non-profit organization is more focused on raising alertness, and does not represent the entirety of the judicial system, focusing more on lawyers than magistrates.
“I think it is up to the judiciary to do it.” He says, on creating internal systematic changes.
“It is actually up to us rather than external organizations.”
He believes that regular mental health check ups should be a mandatory “part of the job.”
“I don’t think it should be necessary for people to call out for help, there should be preventative measures of mental health checking.” He said.
“Magistrates and judges should have some organized, predetermined mental health debriefing on a regular basis.”
Steven Doumit, a senior criminal lawyer who has been working for legal aid since 1992, says that legal aid, despite currently offering an employee assistance program, and a free monthly psychologist session, has room for improvement.
“Management could be more proactive” he said.
“Asking on a regular basis, “are you okay”, in the middle of a trial…or after you have a conference with a difficult or violent client.” He suggested.
Liesel, a community engagement officer from HeadSpace, says that much needs to be done to change the culture towards mental health in law, it being, what she calls “high pressure.”
“Psychologists have professional supervision, so do domestic violence and rape counselors. It might be really helpful for the law community to set up something that has an equivalent for people who are dealing with traumatic experiences.” She said.
David Heilpern agrees. “I think there needs to be some proactive things happening, not just availability in help, but actually mental health check ins on a regular basis.” He said.
Vicarious trauma continues to be heavily stigmatised in the NSW judicial system, however, according to a hopeful Magistrate Heilpern, conversation is beginning to shift, and with it, the future wellbeing of legal practitioners.
“Things are starting to change, but slowly. I think more people will come forward as time goes by”. Heilpern said hopefully.
“There is much to be done.”