As we reach the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, it seems like a good time to reflect on the impact that the current immigration system can have on the mental health not only of migrants, but also their legal representatives.
We regularly hear of people becoming depressed as a result of delay in their applications being processed. For example, Hugh Evans, a British contract software engineer who waited months for his wife and son to join him in the UK, told the Guardian that “the psychological toll is affecting my work and I’ve fallen into a state of depression”. Then there is the “considerable mental health cost to detainees caused by the lack of a time limit in detention”, as highlighted by the cross-party Report of the Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom. Most recently, the eloquent testimony of victims of the Windrush scandal bears witness to the psychological scars inflicted by the hostile environment.
Less often spoken about is the impact on those who represent migrants. This is not to equate or even compare our struggles with those of our clients, but simply to acknowledge that we too can be affected. In this spirit, an event was held at Garden Court Chambers on 16 May, to raise awareness about the importance of well-being among immigration lawyers, and to provide information about the support available.
The event was chaired by Nicole Francis, ILPA’s chief executive. She reported how widespread mental health are among lawyers at all levels by quoting from testimonials collected anonymously from immigration practitioners:
I can feel stressed in the evenings and take some time to “switch off”. I feel exhausted during and at the end of the week. My mood is very low or grumpy, sometimes anxious and I can’t focus on anything else. Trouble sleeping [solicitor, 3 years’ experience in immigration law].
I used to battle with anxiety before and after work which culminated in nausea, chest pains and dizziness. I would often struggle to sleep because I was turning a case over and over in my head or, at my worst, I would dream about fictitious or closed cases which had ‘gone horribly wrong’ and wake myself up stressing about how to fix them. [solicitor, over 8 years’ experience]
Practitioners are asking for a change and more support, lest they end up leaving the profession because of the pressures of work:
I do not think that it is possible for me to continue doing this job when I have a family as the hours are erratic, the job is all-consuming. I am also not convinced that I want to continue being this stressed so regularly when there are other careers out there that may be less stressful. [solicitor, 3 years’ experience]
Unless there is systemic change within the profession it feels like it is simply not sustainable. The combination of workload, human suffering, and unmanageable expectations (both external and internal) is simply unmanageable. This is exacerbated by the toxic anti-migrant socio-political environment that we live in [barrister, 6 years’ experience]
During the event, speakers and participants also reflected on the particular features of working in immigration law that can affect the wellbeing of practitioners. Immigration lawyers might be particularly vulnerable because:
- their work directly affects people’s lives;
- the profession tends to attract empathetic people, who in turn can be more sensitive to their client’s plights;
- the political climate we are operating in is not in favour of our clients; and
- there is a tremendous volume of work, combined with constant changes in law and guidance (and application forms!) which lawyers must stay on top of.
Joanna Fleck, co-founder of Claiming Space, talked about her own research and that of the Law Society Junior Lawyers’ Division, which highlight how working with vulnerable clients can be particularly difficult.
- A quarter of respondents working with vulnerable clients reported “regularly” feeling unable to cope, compared to 19% of those not working with this client group
- 43% of respondents working for vulnerable clients reported “regularly” feeling stressed as result of work, compared to 33% of those not working with this client group
- 44% of those working with vulnerable clients reported experiencing a mental health problem over the last month, compared to 36% of those not working with this client group
As we fight for our clients and for a change in the system, we should also ensure that we take care of ourselves, so that we can continue doing our job long term. As a quote highlighted by Joanna says:
The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet. (Rachel Naomi Remen, 1996, Kitchen Table Wisdom, p. 52)
If you are feeling the impact of your work on your well-being, there are resources out there. Here are the three organisations who participated at the event of Wednesday:
- LawCare, which offers a free, independent and confidential helpline to discuss your concerns with trained volunteers who have worked in the law. They can talk with you, signpost you, and offer peer support. Their website also has useful factsheets, top ten tips for wellbeing, and other resources.
- Claiming Space,. Claiming Space Evening is a free monthly meet up for junior lawyers working with traumatised and vulnerable clients, and offers a safe, non-judgemental space to learn, share and reflect on your practice. Claiming Space today offers a tailored training and facilitated spaces for you and your team, with modules such as mental health awareness, vicarious trauma, meditation & yoga, stress & burnout.
- Freedom From Torture are developing, in partnership with ILPA, a self-care and vicarious trauma training programme for immigration legal practitioners.
If you know of other useful resources, or have ideas on training or resources we could develop to help, please do not hesitate to contact me.