The Mental Health Battleground That Is the Legal Field

The tragic suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput has opened up a can of worms. It has been triggering for many people, including me. This article is an attempt to unburden myself of a load I have been carrying for many years, and to let others know that they aren’t alone in feeling the way they are.

It was October 2017. Court was shut for the Diwali break. It was around 5 pm – quite early in the day by a lawyer’s standards. My colleague and I were in office with the day’s work ahead of us when I suddenly found myself unable to breathe.

I had to get out of there and lie down. I packed up, even though I knew it was risky behaviour, and told my colleague I needed to leave. He stared at me numbly as I walked out.

I couldn’t breathe till I reached the safe space of my house and collapsed on the couch. I think that was the beginning of my downward spiral. I was young and ambitious. I loved my job, I liked my bosses and my colleague – but I felt that way and I couldn’t help it. It made my day-to-day functioning difficult and my work suffered. Feeling the way I did was not something I kept hidden – I was open about it, but also in a way which dismissed and trivialised my own suffering, because I felt so guilty that it came in the way of performing my duties. That was something I didn’t want to give legitimacy to.

Even though I believe I fought my hardest fight, I was not the same person anymore. I hadn’t been practising long – it had only been four or five months – but I had observed my surroundings and I knew this would be seen as a weakness and reflect on my apparent ability to be a good litigation lawyer.

Even those who claimed that they heard me didn’t come from a place of genuine understanding, responding with a pitiful, “Yes, I understand, but maybe this is not the best place for you”, and an unsolicited “maybe you’re too weak to handle the pressure – it’s not a problem, but maybe you should look to do something else”. A double-edged sword.

Also read: Indian Law Firms and Burnt-Out Meat Robots: Savagery at Its Finest

In the subsequent months, I started becoming very critical of myself. The idea of taking up work scared me as my confidence crumbled, and I was scared of failing at it even before trying to do it. I was constantly on edge. In my head, I seemed to be trying but nothing was going right. I would spend hours on a tiny bit of research, trying to get it perfect, or nervously read the same line again and again – but I was slipping into a dark hole, and I refused to seek help then.

I wasn’t really the kind of employee who would be an asset, no.

It’s not like I didn’t have kind people around me, there were people senior to me who repeatedly told me to not take it too personally. However, the mind is your best friend and your worst enemy. I listened to them, but I was far beyond internalising it. My mind was naïve enough to quickly adapt to the belief that my inability to adjust to that pressure reflected on my abilities as a lawyer. I didn’t process the fact that maybe the adjustment is a choice that you seek to make, and that’s the only way it should be seen.

It is a given that a career in litigation comes with many factors and externalities and there is no absolute truth to it. The one thing that does hold true is that those factors are extremely subjective and personal to what each lawyer values. No young lawyer wants to believe that the pressure of the work is too much for her/him/them as if it is some kind of a universal truth that determines what kind of a lawyer you are going to make.

I didn’t have the bandwidth to rationalise my situation then. As a young lawyer, freshly out of college, who moved to a new city, there are other living responsibilities which also act as stressors, not to name other disadvantages.

I have been diabetic for 14 years, and I still hesitate to mention that in my interviews because I am scared that that will be considered another disability, another liability – just another weakness.

How do we change this space? It’s important that we stop pretending that mental health matters, and truly embrace and normalise it. How about making the profession more inclusive, more sensitive, less ‘pressurising’ (a word that is thrown about so casually, it surprises me) and not glorify dealing with pressure or harsh situations?

It’s time this profession becomes kinder, and encourages more open conversations with seniors, peers and juniors. It truly needs to go beyond just lip service and mental health hypocrisy. Let’s remember that dealing with such situations is a matter of choice and not that of capability. While we are at it, let’s also stop the fake sympathy that masks judgment that arises from some sense of superiority.

Let’s give mental health its due, because it’s a matter of humanity.

It’s been years since I graduated. I have been hesitant on many occasions to pursue litigation – the voice in my head that pushes me towards it is soft and mired in systemic fear. Every time I’ve thought I can, the fear has held me back.

I am sure there will be lawyers who will read this and think “she’s not meant for it”, but maybe we need to re-assess that kind of judgment and value we as legal professionals wish to uphold.

Veera Mahuli graduated from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. She just wrapped up a semester as a teaching assistant at NALSAR, after taking a break from the legal practice in October 2017. 

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty