Judge urges magistracy to seek help for good mental health and wellbeing

A senior Queensland judge has urged the state’s 101 magistrates to talk about things troubling them, share a laugh with friends and family, or seek professional treatment to combat increasing workplace stress and trauma, and maintain good mental health and wellbeing.

Queensland Supreme Court Justice Helen Bowskill last month highlighted the mental health perils judicial officers are exposed to during a presentation to members of the magistracy who reside in 33 places throughout the state and preside frequently in courts across 122 local communities.

Justice Bowskill, in her presentation, ‘Cumulative Trauma and Stress as a Judicial Officer’, said judicial stress and wellbeing had been a topic of conversation in the legal profession for many years and that “tragically there are judicial officers who have felt so bereft and desperate as a consequence of trauma and stress” that they had resorted to self-harm.

She said the “cumulative stress and trauma” of daily exposure to “the very worst of human behaviour” was taking a severe and detrimental toll on the mental health and wellbeing of members of Queensland’s judiciary.

“Contrary to the popular belief that judicial officers enjoy a leisurely existence in ivory towers, courts are daily exposed to the very worst of human behaviour,’ Justice Bowskill said. “We spend a lot of our professional life in the murky depths of the gutter, rather than the lofty heights of any tower.”

In highlighting the need to address the topic seriously, Justice Bowskill referred to ground-breaking research undertaken by University of Melbourne doctoral researcher Carly Schrever, whose report was published almost two years ago.

Ms Schrever’s report, first published in the Journal of Judicial Administration, where she worked as a judicial wellbeing officer, provided the first empirical data on the nature, prevalence and severity of stress among the Australian judiciary.

A key finding of the report was that judicial officers’ rates of non-specific psychological distress were considerably higher than those of the general population.

Ms Schrever, who is both a lawyer and psychologist, found more than half (52%) of judicial officers indicated some level of non-specific psychological distress, despite reports of moderate-to-severe anxious and depressive symptoms occurring at rates lower than the general legal practitioner population.

Additionally, the report found almost one in three members of the judiciary used alcohol at a “problematic level” and experienced symptoms of traumatic stress at levels which “formal assessment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is considered warranted”.

Conversely, the report showed most officers found judicial work to be “highly satisfying and less stressful than legal practice”, with almost two thirds (62%) saying their current office was far less stressful than their previous legal roles.

On 25 March, Justice Bowskill told Queensland’s magistrates the “cumulative trauma and stress” on judicial officers was the result of an accumulation, over time, of the deleterious effects of things such as deeply distressing events, or threats, vilification, vicarious trauma, large workloads, public expectations and negative public comment on the judiciary.

“Why is it an important topic?” Justice Bowskill posited. “Because … judicial officers are the pinnacle of the legal profession, protectors of the rule of law, and the third arm of government, and as such their occupational wellbeing and sustainability is a vital community concern.

“As senior members of a stress-prone profession, managing workloads bordering on the oppressive, in the context of professional isolation, intense scrutiny and often highly traumatic material, there is good reason to expect that judicial officers are at particular risk of work-related stress.

“Given the impact of judicial decisions on people’s lives, and the pivotal role they play in our democratic system, courts arguably have a duty, not only to individual judges, but to the community more generally, to investigate and promote judicial wellbeing.

“Even more significantly, it is an important topic because we know that tragically there are judicial officers who have felt so bereft and desperate as a consequence of trauma and stress that they have taken their lives.’’

As part of the 16-page, recently published, presentation, Justice Bowskill discussed in detail the six topics analysed in Ms Schrever’s report – such as burnout, symptoms of depression and anxiety, non-specific psychological distress, perceived stress and wellbeing, alcohol use and dependence, and secondary traumatic stress.

Secondary traumatic stress, more commonly referred to as “compassion fatigue”, is the medically diagnosable condition found in people who exhibited symptoms similar to PTSD, without having necessarily been exposed to direct trauma themselves.

“An overwhelming majority (83.6%) of judicial officers endorsed at least one ‘secondary stress syndrome’ symptom in the week prior to completing (Ms Schrever’s) survey,” Justice Bowskill said. “Almost one-third (30.4%) scored in the moderate to severe ranges – the level at which formal assessment for post-traumatic stress disorder may be warranted.

“Relevantly, almost half (48.7%) of the respondents, reported having trouble sleeping … about 37% reported being easily annoyed, about 22% reported wanting to avoid working on certain types of cases or cases involving certain people … and just over 10% reported having disturbing dreams about the people that came before them.

“Overall, the results indicated that about 62% of judicial officers were experiencing mild or higher levels of secondary traumatic stress, with 13% experiencing high or severe secondary traumatic stress.

“As Schrever observes, what can be taken from these results is that secondary traumatic stress is a prominent feature of the occupational stress experienced by Australian judicial officers.”

Justice Bowskill said one of the most “worthwhile” points to emerge during the research was that judicial officers who were deriving the “most enjoyment from the role” where those who prioritised their own wellbeing.

“What to do? We are all going to approach this differently, but for me the following are helpful,” she said. “Find a few close colleagues you can trust, to talk about an issue you are battling to solve or which is a presenting as a ‘road-block].

“Talk about things that are troubling you – for example a difficult, upsetting sentence (or) an awful trial.

“Share a laugh with friends or colleagues. Have other interests – so that you can, or have to, leave work behind.

“(And) if you are struggling, don’t hesitate or wait too long, seek professional help as soon as you can.”

Read Justice Bowskill’s full 16-page presentation paper.

If this story has caused distress, QLS’s confidential counselling service LawCare is available for members online or 24 hours a day on 1800 177 743. Beyond Blue operates a 24-hour crisis line on 1300 22 4636 and Lifeline Australia is available on 13 11 14.

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