Professor Telfer extends mental health advocacy with release of “The Right Not to Remain Silent”

April 30, 2024


Like many others in the legal profession, Professor Thomas Telfer wasn’t always comfortable speaking openly about his mental health journey. Stigmatizing attitudes towards mental health led him to conceal his battle with a mood disorder for many years, until he recognized the power in sharing his story.

“In 2016, I was invited to appear in the Zero Suicide Initiative video for St. Joseph’s Health Care in London. I received tremendous support from those who watched the video and I heard from many former students who said they had also experienced mental health issues,” said Telfer. “At that point, I decided to become a mental health advocate and I’ve been sharing my story ever since.”

As a co-editor (with Beth Beattie and Carole Dagher) and contributing author for The Right Not to Remain Silent: The Truth About Mental Health in The Legal Profession, published April 30, 2024, he continues his advocacy on the need to reform attitudes toward mental health. With candid essays from members of the legal profession living with mental health and addiction issues, the book provides encouragement while challenging how mental health is perceived in law and beyond.

“The aim of the book is to give people hope. Readers who are dealing with a mental health issue shouldn’t feel so alone,” said Telfer. “Their struggle is a shared one. There are many legal professionals who deal with mental health challenges on a daily basis.”

Telfer believes that a complete cultural shift in the legal profession is needed to solve the mental health crisis for lawyers. He points to an October 2022 study, Towards a Healthy and Sustainable Practice of Law in Canada, as illustrating why change is needed now. According to the study of 7,800 legal professionals across Canada, between 50 to 60 per cent of respondents experienced “psychological distress” including depression and anxiety.

“While mental health is talked about more openly today there is still a long way to go. There is still a stigma attached to mental health that prevents people from getting help,” said Telfer. “Many people self-stigmatize believing societal messages that a mental health crisis is something that you get over by trying harder. This is simply not true and results in many lawyers suffering in silence.”

The diversity of the books’ contributors – from judges to professors and lawyers on Bay Street and beyond – demystifies the pervasiveness of mental health challenges across the field. The personal accounts of living and working with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, addiction, grief, imposter syndrome and perfectionism illustrate the need for action at the individual, collegial and organizational level.

The Right Not to Remain Silent is an inspiring call to action for legal educators, practitioners and regulators to make systemic and cultural changes to remove stigma and promote a healthier and more empathetic profession,” said Western Law Dean Erika Chamberlain. “In courageously sharing their stories, the contributors to this volume show other lawyers that they are not alone in dealing with mental health challenges of all kinds. The book is an important resource for lawyers and prospective lawyers, whether they struggle personally or want to help support their colleagues.”

While Telfer emphasizes the need for systemic change in the legal profession, he’s encouraged by the evolution of mental health supports in legal education. As a Western Law student in the 1980s, mental health was not a phrase he heard on campus. Now, Western and many other law schools have a full-time wellness counsellor to assist students coping with mental health challenges. Western also incorporates mental health programming into orientation week and provides an upper year credit course on Mindfulness and the Legal Profession led by Telfer.

“Students shouldn’t be left to navigate community resources when they’re in need. Having a free confidential service within law schools is so important,” said Telfer. “Law schools can also broaden their curriculum to offer courses in mental health, mindfulness and emotional intelligence. These types of courses help prepare students to better navigate the legal profession.”

Whether learning emotional regulation techniques or following the Personal Management Practice Guideline from the Law Society of Ontario Telfer encourages students and professionals alike to invest in their own mental wellness. He stresses that these suggestions don’t obviate the need for top-down structural changes from law societies, firms and schools, noting that “significant change needs to come from these institutions.” Along with his co-editors and fellow contributors, Telfer hopes that the stories of bravery and resilience in The Right Not to Remain Silent will present an incontrovertible case that reform can’t wait.