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Wellbeing at the Bar Blog: Rachel Crasnow QC

A new kind of first aid: mental health first aid

Determined, energetic and purposeful high achievers can be the most vulnerable to mental health issues because they push themselves so hard.

Barristers, who often work alone, often with long commutes to courts, their self-employed status removing them from any managerial oversight, are particularly susceptible to suffering from acute stress and work-related anxiety. Competition and an adversarial approach to everything can make collegiate relationships difficult. Add a penchant for perfectionism and nagging concerns about future work and income, and our lifestyles provide all too easy opportunities for mental health conditions to emerge.

A problem with the pattern of a barrister’s work, is that it is at the busiest, most stressful times that we are least likely to acknowledge there is a problem, or to take time to do anything at all to engage with our stress or take steps to resolve our suffering. We mask our symptoms with coffee and alcohol. We work ever longer hours to show a face of perfectionism to solicitors, clients and colleagues alike. We reduce the precious time for unwinding with family and friends, for exercise or for sleeping. Is it any wonder that many barristers suffer from mental health problems which they take care to hide from colleagues for fear of letting the mask slip?

Given how many report it being truly difficult to help themselves when they most need it, the concept of mental health first aid is key for barristers to enable them to look out for one another.

Many staff and barristers in chambers have undertaken first aid training for physical emergencies. We have first aid box filled with plasters, bandages and antiseptic. Likewise, having systems in place to show us how to spot stress and support the wellbeing of each other, permits a culture to develop where severe pressure and unhealthy suffering can be abated.

Steps considered in mental health first aid training include watching out for warning signs, for example:

  • signs that a member of chamber’s finances are awry as a result of significant underlying wellbeing issues, such as late or no payment of chambers contributions, borrowing money within chambers from colleagues, staff or pupils and excessive pressure on chambers’ administration to get fees in as well as repeated or unusually prolonged disputes about fees;
  • irritability aggressive behaviour, tearfulness;
  • difficulty in remembering things other than their own current case;
  • being adamant they are in the right;
  • being louder or more exuberant than usual;
  • being run down and having an ongoing stream of minor illnesses or rashes;
  • mentioning difficulty sleeping, looking shattered.

Here are just a few ways in which fellow staff and barristers can take steps to assist at an early stage, once warning signs have been identified:

  • ask questions in an open exploratory and non-judgemental way;
  • listen rather than immediately offering solutions. Be supportive, empathetic and positive;
  • listen actively – ideally away from chambers, turn your phone off;
  • talk somewhere appropriate where emotion can be expressly freely and privately;
  • back up your concerns over particular concerns or behaviours with concrete examples; be prepared for the barrister to be evasive;
  • avoid giving the barrister the impression that “everyone” is talking about them; say “I” not “we”;
  • assure the barrister of confidentiality, as long as you feel they are “safe”;
  • reassure the barrister that they are valued;
  • be kind! Even if offers of help and future action are refused, you can show you care. So, bring them a [decaf] coffee when they are not expecting it. Give them a [not too sugary] flapjack to eat on their way back from court.
  • respect their wishes about future action- but ask if you can check in.

Remember, feeling apprehensive about how someone will react to your intervention is not a reason to do nothing if you have concerns about their wellbeing.

If at any time you feel that matters are becoming too intense for you to deal with, you should refer things on to someone more senior (either barrister or staff) at the earliest opportunity.

Wellbeing first aid training is available from a range of supplies, such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). MHFA courses cover compassionate, non-judgemental listening, encouraging open conversation, and advising on simple self-care methods. For further information see their excellent website at https://mhfaengland.org/.

Lots of chambers are now providing MHFA training to members/staff. To make the courses even easier to access, the WATB team at Bar Council are looking to host MHFA training at Bar Council Offices in the Autumn on behalf of the Bar and we’d love to hear from barristers, clerks and chambers’ staff to gauge how many half-day sessions to commission (up to 25 people can attend each session). Expressions of interests from the Circuits also welcomed so we can establish who needs what and where.

Please email for more details: KWong@BarCouncil.org.uk.

Rachel Crasnow QC, is renowned as an employment and equality law specialist appearing in complex, high-value claims involving all types of discrimination as well as, equal pay, regulatory work and whistleblowing cases.  She was nominated for Employment Silk of the Year 2017 by Chambers & Partners, is frequently engaged to act as a mediator and sits as a part-time judge. She has recently lectured on segregation on campus, dress codes and discrimination against benefits tenants. Rachel is Cloisters’ Wellbeing Lead, Chair of the Bar Council’s Legislation and Guidance Panel, a subcommittee of the Equality & Diversity & Special Mobility Committee and has just chaired a Bar Council seminar on Fair allocation of Work.

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