Caitlin McConnel, Clayton Utz

Published Wed, Sep 16, 2020

We are all shaped in large part by our family, our friends, our communities and our workplace; it is those conscious and unconscious bonds that influence our goal-setting, decision-making and our mindset.

I have a fierce passion for agriculture, my home and my family. I have always been very determined and quite competitive, which is why it comes as no surprise that my practice in law now, is as a litigator. I crave routine, discipline, and order, and have always, upon my mother’s influence, set very clear goals. It would be true to say, even now, that I wear many hats: as a daughter, a lawyer, a grazier and a volunteer.

However, and contrary to the outgoing countenance that often comes with being a litigator, or a child of the Australian bush, it is the shadow hidden beneath my many hats, which comes as a surprise to most - particularly my work colleagues. That shadow is my battle with clinical depression.

The Black Dog has followed me since I was a teenager, and was born from knowing all too intimately the effects the millennium drought was having on my parent’s mental, physical and financial wellbeing - a burden many rural contemporaries of my generation carried. I was at times bad-tempered, frustrated and deflated, all in one. In the early years, I learnt valuable lessons in how to tame the Black Dog, which was centred around my penchant for goal-setting and routine. These are lessons I continue to draw upon today.

Nonetheless, and despite a war chest full of tools, there were and are, times when my Black Dog becomes unleashed. I have had three severe bouts of clinical depression in my life, the third of which I am enduring on and off now. In the past, I was reluctant to share my experiences with clinical depression with anyone, due to the stigma associated with mental illness in the bush, and the legal profession. If you were known to have a mental illness, you were seen as weak, unapproachable, or unstable.

I am now at an age, however, where I have experienced family members and friends commit suicide due to mental illness, and I am comfortable openly admitting that the Black Dog has at times also led me to believe that giving up was the only option.

We are so very fortunate to be in an age where mental illness is no longer an unknown, or even seen as a taboo topic of conversation. It is the breaking of those boundaries that are the very reason I have been able to endure the Black Dog; and is why I am now an advocate for ensuring the stigma associated with mental illness in the legal profession, and on the land, is eradicated.

As I am able to attest, having a platform to encourage mental health awareness is significant, in circumstances where there is a natural correlation between the traits that make one a good lawyer or farmer and those that might lead to mental illness. As a result, I am grateful to work for a firm and be part of a family, that actively encourages mental health awareness, and nurtures those of us with mental illness, just as they would any individual undergoing rehabilitation for a physical ailment.

Without the comfort of an open and nurturing work environment, I would not have the courage to admit to my colleagues when I am simply “running on fumes”; nor would I have the courage to use my experiences to comfort those who are bearing the same burden. Indeed, to work for a firm that encourages candour when it comes to mental illness has been life-changing, and significantly in my experience, lifesaving.

I am acutely aware that my current bout of clinical depression is unlikely to be the last time the Black Dog casts a shadow over my life or my work. As a result, I want to give my colleagues the tools to help me remember that I am not weak or unworthy; just as I hope that in sharing my battle with the Black Dog, I am strengthening my own resolve, and my ability to help others. That is why I speak out, even when it’s hard to do so; and why I am a Mental Health First Aider.

Caitlin McConnel, Senior Associate, Clayton Utz

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