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“Getting help is critical”

Chris Parsons, equity partner at international firm, Herbert Smith Freehills shares his own personal insights into poor mental health and the steps he took towards recovery.

Chris’s story

Anxiety was a feature of my life from a young age – as I felt insecure at home I began to view the world as an unsafe place, a place to be feared. Exams were a nightmare and even the school 100 yards race induced feelings of faintness and sickness. Why against this background did I think that law was the profession for me I am not sure – something about status was part of it and proving myself to my Dad was also relevant.

I joined Herbert Smith (now Herbert Smith Freehills) as an articled clerk in 1985 and worked hard to keep on top of the role but more importantly to keep on top of my anxiety. I began to self-medicate with alcohol to reduce the stress at the end of each day. And my love affair with alcohol began in earnest – it was the answer to all my dreams until the morning brought a new day of work.

Inner turmoil

I could clearly do the job and others thought I was good at it as I progressed from young lawyer to equity partner. But the inner turmoil of stress and anxiety multiplied by ever longer hours and increasing amounts of alcohol finally brought me to breaking point and I collapsed in the gym one evening and was rushed to hospital.

My stress and anxiety rapidly turned to depression as I felt my world fall apart

After a week of every test imaginable, I heard the words “Great news Mr Parsons, there is nothing wrong with you, all the tests are clear”. But it was not good news for me as all that is left was a mental health problem – and my stress and anxiety rapidly turned to depression as I felt my world fall apart.

What did depression look like to me?

I could not sleep despite being exhausted all of the time, making decisions became increasingly difficult (not complicated legal questions, these were completely beyond me, but which newspaper to buy), everything I had previously enjoyed in life meant nothing and my world became my bed where I spent hours crying.

The long road to recovery

This was all in the late 1990’s and the last thing I felt I could do at work was hold my hand up and say I have a mental health problem – I need time to get better. The story back then was that I had been overdoing it and just needed to recharge my batteries.

Whilst I could do the job there were aspects of it that made me ill

It took two further serious episodes of depression and time off work for me to really face the fact that whilst I could do the job there were aspects of it that made me ill. My alcohol use also became a serious dependency – I now had two problems rather than just one. So I made a radical reassessment about what I could do and how this would continue to add value to the firm. The alcohol would also have to go. The last 10 years of my career as chairman of the India practice of the firm have been the most fulfilling and rewarding of my 30 plus years at the firm.

What are the overall messages I would like to share?

  • Depression is terrible – life does not seem worth living
  • But it is common – when I share my story with others I am struck by the stories in return
  • Like other illnesses it can be treated – whether through talking therapies or medication or both (I believe that medication saved my life and I continue to take a maintenance dose to this day)
  • I was helped by a wonderfully supportive firm and my family
  • The stigma is reducing and the more we talk about it, the more it might just disappear – more work needs to be done around the related issue of addiction, whether alcohol or otherwise
  • Getting help is critical – I wish I had asked for it far sooner
  • A complete recovery is possible though for some (like me) this may require a radical reassessment of their life and career
  • And there is life after depression – despite a return of the “Black Dog” three years ago – my last ten years at work have been by far the happiest of my career

If anyone would like to contact me about any of this my mail is chris.parsons@hsf.com

Support for solicitors

Solicitors, if you find yourself affected by poor mental health, your profession’s charities are here for you. Don’t wait until crisis point. Reach out to SBA and LawCare when you are in need.

  • SBA The Solicitors’ Charity
    Poor mental health is the single most significant issues SBA beneficiaries face. SBA provides support for solicitors and their families during times of need and crisis. Find out if you are eligible for financial help, benefits and personal debt management advice.
  • LawCare
    LawCare’s free, independent and confidential Helpline provides a space for you to talk about anything that may be worrying you. Call on 0800 279 6888 Mon-Fri 9am – 7.30pm, weekends & bank holidays 10am – 4pm

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