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Mental health case study: Angus McNicol

17 May 2016

Angus McNicolMy life/work life in the lead up to developing a mental health issue

As I moved into my mid 50's, I felt less secure in my job, which I had (I now see wrongly) come to believe was the bedrock of my existence, despite having a happy marriage and great children and an enviable lifestyle living near the Topsham estuary, which involves a lot of sailing. I came to realize that my role in the firm was far from pivotal, despite the fact that I was invariably supportive and enthusiastic and perceived to be a good operator as a disputes resolution partner.

What happened to my wellbeing and mental health and how my mental health issue manifested – my diagnosis

Despite having no history of mental health difficulties, I became anxious and depressed and stopped sleeping. Despite this, I was adamant that I had to carry on working a 50-hour week, believing that the moment I showed any sign of weakness, my legal career would come to a halt and I would no longer be able to afford to maintain my family and our comfortable lifestyle and that everything would have to be sold. I also did not want anyone, including friends, parents and non-immediate family, to know what I was going through.

The treatment I received

Eventually, and after about nine months of trying to bottle up how I felt, I finally took my GP's advice and was signed off work. While that was the right decision, doing nothing had a bad effect on me and made me feel worse, despite doing 45-minute runs two or three times a week. I was capable of sitting in an armchair , staring into space for days on end.

Nevertheless, I was absolutely determined to work to get back to full-time employment as quickly as possible. I underwent private counselling, which was helpful, though the focus was to phase me back to my old role. I was also prescribed a well known antidepressant, which initially gave me hallucinations, but gradually caused me to feel unnaturally exuberant and able to conquer the world. It was in that frame of mind that I went back to 23-hours per week until I started to feel depressed again, realizing that my legal career was not going to be brought back.

I was off work for another three months and then came back for a second time, this time in a more realistic frame of mind. In the cold light of day, I took my own decision that I needed to change careers and came to appreciate that none of us need as much money as we think we do.

I was prescribed an alternative antidepressant during a later period of six months, which was helpful in maintaining a level mood pattern. During some really bad times I was put onto the LawCare helpline and was assigned a supporter. It really helped me to talk through my concerns with a fellow professional who had suffered similar problems. They also concentrate on trying to get people to understand that a Law training sets you up for hundreds of other opportunities outside private legal practise.

I underwent a really useful Mindfulness course run by a personal friend and that helped me to appreciate more what really matters in life including people's health and living for the moment and taking time out to appreciate the great things in life, including eating in such a way that you appreciate the taste and texture of food. I also underwent another course of counselling paid for by my firm, which ended up gearing me to come to terms with life after the law, in other words developing my real interests and passions and finding roles which tied in with those.

I started doing regular voluntary work for a number of really special local charities before converting to being a self-employed charity consultant.

How supportive my employer was over this period

When I became ill and took time off work, my firm was supportive and one of my partners kept in touch and met me periodically to talk through possible phased returns to work.

How supportive my employer was on their return to the workplace and changes made in my work environment in order to promote my wellbeing

The firm was supportive and almost certainly did the right thing in resisting my pressure to try to build up the level of workload that I was seeking, to enable me to try to achieve the high targets of the past. However, I may not have seen it that way at the time.

I think, in retrospect, that once I became ill, it was only a matter of time before I would have to stop my job and change careers. I think my firm did give me the necessary breathing space to let me come to my own conclusions on this basis.

Advice I would give to others who feel their wellbeing/mental health is suffering:

  • see a GP the moment you start to suffer from sleep deprivation or feel anxiety
  • contact LawCare and talk through your concerns with an independent lawyer on a confidential basis
  • take time off work if your GP says you should take time off
  • remember that it is every bit as bad an illness as a physical illness and people won't think you are 'malingering'
  • listen to your close family who will tell you that a legal career is not the be all and end all and that your health comes first
  • consider a change of career based on your favourite things in life, including undertaking voluntary work for charities that particularly interest you
  • mindfulness courses and possibly yoga to calm the mind and help you to live in the moment
  • keep up regular physical exercise
  • no one wants to take medication but take your GP's advice as it may be necessary, even if it is for a defined period. Be aware that it may take time to get the medication suited to you.

Advice I give to employers to better support their staff

  • ensure your whole firm/HR department truly understands the fact that one in three or four people will suffer from mental-health problems in their lifetime, which means, in a large firm, a significant number of people.
  • most people will try to put a good face on it and hide the symptoms so keep your eyes and ears open
  • understand that mental health problems are every bit as debilitating as physical and life-threatening conditions
  • set up a system of external confidential mentoring of staff so that health problems and anxieties can be identified long before other forms of treatment, like counselling, become necessary
  • engage an independent counselling/mentoring organization so that staff can seek
  • counselling in a way that is 100 per cent confidential, as In-house counselling cannot work due to potential or perceived lack of confidentiality
  • appreciate that being a lawyer in a significant law firm can be lonely in that there is potentially no one you can confide in when you feel vulnerable or anxious about the future.

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