For me, Mental Health Awareness week has always been an opportunity to focus on, and promote the importance of, good mental health for both colleagues and clients alike, and to chip away at the stigma that often accompanies those who live with conditions affecting their mental health.
The importance of Mental Health Awareness Week has been brought into further sharp focus this year by the effects of lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers and commentators alike have rightly been discussing the effects of social distancing and self-isolation on the majority of the population; there is no doubt that, even for some of the most resilient in society, the lockdown is taking its toll.
However, my attention has been drawn in particular to the pandemic's effect on those less resilient in society. These include (but by no means are limited to) those lacking capacity to make decisions in relation to various aspects of their life, those with housing problems, or those in dispute over the care of their children (all of which often have mental health issues as part of their cause) . While the courts that deal with these issues do their best to keep up, it is inevitable that cracks are starting to show.
I am pleased that I am not alone. There has been plenty of media focus on the issues being experienced by the elderly and by children. However one tends to read less about those who might be considered less 'sympathetic' to media audiences, for example those with severe mental health problems who might pose a danger to themselves or others; or through mental health difficulties are struggling to look after their children. Many of these people will end up in court proceedings which, even for those who are represented, can be a bewildering and stressful experience. Add in the fact of lockdown and the inevitable stresses brought on by that, and life becomes even more difficult.
For those representing themselves, the stresses are brought into further stark relief. I have dealt with a number of litigants in person including during lockdown. The subject matter can be emotive: decisions are being made about contact with or residence arrangements for a loved one. My duty is to advocate strongly on behalf of my client, and I may disagree strongly with what the opposing litigant in person is saying; however, that the unfamiliar court process has become more alien to that litigant in person, who is already dealing with emotionally difficult issues, is not lost on me.
The theme of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week is 'kindness' However as pointed out by Professor Peter Fonagy in an article for the Guardian, showing kindness to those who are not trusting (of relationships, or 'the system') can be difficult. They are difficult to engage with and may as such be overlooked.
Vulnerable people need the support of lawyers perhaps more now than previously, but just as importantly, they need the support of wider society.
While we are all devoting attention to the important issue of mental health, it seems to me imperative, particularly in these difficult times, that we ensure those who are sometimes shunned by society because they are difficult to engage with, are being thought about and supported as well – whether we like them or not.