Stressed, Overworked Lawyers Are Worried About Body Image

When Jerome Doraisamy was in his final year of law school, he went through what he calls a major breakdown at a music festival. 

Warning: This story discusses mental health issues including body image, depression and anxiety. 

It was New Years Eve in 2011 and after pushing himself to the "absolute brink", Doraisamy then went through an 18-month period suffering clinical depression and anxiety.

"It was a humbling and also humiliating experience for a competitive law student, but also a crippling episode," he told ten daily.

"It derailed my graduate opportunity and threw the whole trajectory out the window."

It was enough for Doraisamy to decide to leave the profession.

Instead, he spends his time writing and mentoring other students and young lawyers he saw being overworked and facing concerning levels of emotional distress as they rose up the ranks.

Jerome Doraisamy has since left the profession. Image: Facebook

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There is growing concern around the mental wellbeing of lawyers, with new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) and the University of Western Australia (UWA) reporting an obsession with body weight and shape could be elevating stress levels.

Co-lead researcher Dr Shane Rogers has been working in this space with UWA's law professor Natalie Skead for several years.

Surveying 428 law students and 148 lawyers across the country, the study found both groups' concerns about their body image were "well above" those of the general population, despite having a similar Body Mass Index.

Many were inclined to adopt manipulative eating behaviours such as snacking or skipping meals as a result, with a third of respondents reporting such behaviours were influenced by a desire to maintain a certain image among their peers.

"While in all likelihood these aren't issues specific to law students and lawyers, we're suggesting they may be at an elevated risk," he told ten daily.

There is growing awareness around the mental wellbeing of lawyers and law students. Image: Getty

Rogers said the findings were not gender-specific, and that such issues -- normally shaped as specific to teenage girls -- were also affecting men across all ages.

As to why, he referred to "impression management".

"The virtue of the profession means lawyers have to get up and represent people, so it makes sense to maintain a certain image. While we recognise this is important, it's about being wary of becoming obsessive," he said.

It's a demand that Doraisamy knows all too well.

(Getty Images)

"Because lawyers are statistically-speaking much more competitive than people in other professions, they are much more likely to worry about how they're perceived in the workplace," he said.

"That correlates to the work they're doing, but also to their physical appearance, which then manifests by way of not eating properly or in a regimented fashion."

"Whether you're a lawyer or not, being so strict on your health is not going to be good in the long run."

Both Doraisamy and Rogers agreed the high-pressure environment is only exacerbated by certain traits often held by lawyers: competitiveness, perfectionism, and -- unique to law -- pessimism.

"Studies show that law is the only profession in which pessimists outperform optimists. Lawyers often have to look at the flaws or the worst-case scenarios in everything they're doing,' he said.

"Having to employ a pessimistic mindset at work has significant capacity to spill over into your personal life."

The research is in addition to studies showing lawyers and law students are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. According to the Brain and Mind Research Institute, almost a third of solicitors and one in five surveyed barristers suffered from clinical depression.

Doraisamy, who now also works in media, urged both groups to be proactive in setting out good habits.

"This can really apply to anyone. It's common sense to ensure you're eating properly and in a way that allows you to relax and unwind, but it can also be so easy to forget," he said.

"Unless we're as happy and healthy as we can be, we're not going to be as productive as we'd like to be."

Rogers employed universities and law firms to adopt strategies that work to support the mental health of their staff and students.

"It's all about encouraging staff with things like dedicated meal times, and to put these issues out there and in the open," he said.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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Featured image: Getty