For this International Men’s Day, a director in a large law firm in Scotland shares his experience of his own mental health struggles and reminds us that change is possible.
Content warning: please note that this blog discusses anxiety, depression and addiction.
Anxiety, depression and addiction are not unusual amongst men in the legal profession. I’ve had all three.
My main problem was anxiety. I wouldn’t say that it kept me house-bound, I could get to the office and other familiar places, but that was about it. Whenever required to venture further afield or do something unfamiliar, I would either avoid it or survive on a diet of Imodium and beta blockers with the occasional diazepam thrown in.
Depression often follows chronic anxiety, if only because the life-limitations of anxiety can really get you down. Addiction is another symptom. Mine was cigarettes, although, at the time, that wasn’t as socially repugnant as it is now and it didn’t stop me working.
For me, the work environment was a safe haven. As a junior solicitor, I was never left to sink or swim. Instead, I was trained and supported through a gradual increase in technical and business responsibilities. It turns out that what’s good for client service is also good for professional development.
But meantime, my personal life was rubbish. While we may rightly blame our parents and upbringing for our present problems, when we become a man, then we need to take responsibility for our self.
I decided to go into one-to-one therapy and had a couple of different, experienced, male therapists. Understanding the patterns of our thoughts and reactions can help us to avoid repeating them.
However, therapy can, and I’d say should, go beyond an intellectual exercise. It’s possible to know something in your rational mind, but yet for that knowledge to have limited impact on our innermost self, on our heart and the feelings and actions that it generates.
This can be especially difficult when our culture values the intellect so highly and the heart is not really part of the conversation. The pop culture ideal of masculinity is often aggressive, violent, stoic and cold i.e. heartless. It is a fantasy that bears little relation to the reality of being a man.
I got to see genuine masculinity when I joined a men’s therapy group. It’s true that big boys don’t cry. But men do.
A man’s achievement is to know his own heart and have the courage to live true to that self. A man who can’t do that is, in some sense, not fully developed as an independent agent. And that’s an awful lot of us!
Therapy has helped me deal with my anxiety and I’d recommend it for anybody else in need.
My top tips are that cognitive behavioural therapy, which is pushed by the NHS, is good for getting past particular issues (e.g. fear of work meetings or public speaking), but it’s not the best at getting to the root cause of the problem. Ditto for medications – they will treat symptoms of depression but not the cause.
Mindfulness exercises can be helpful too – they will at least put the mind back in its box.
I admit that I don’t have much time for “person centred” therapy – to my mind it will just give you a pat on the back when sometimes a good kick up the backside is what’s needed.
Beyond that, a therapist might have a background in a particular school of therapeutic theory (psychoanalysis, gestalt etc), but the choice of therapist is as much to do with “fit” as anything else.
It’s useful to remember that change is possible, even when it seems hopeless. It starts with having an intention to change. An intention indicates a change of attitude and that’s a powerful change in itself.
If you've been affected by any of the issues discussed in this blog, please visit our Lawscot Wellbeing pages for resources that may help.