In a candid conversation with Megha Katheria of The Leaflet, Advocate Suruchi Suri underlined the conceptualisation of the virtual canteen, mental health struggles and the way forward for the legal community.
Before the coronavirus pandemic in 2019, the World Health Organisation had predicted that by 2020 nearly 20% Indians will be affected by mental health issues.
One can imagine the effect the pandemic has had on this statistic. Yet, mental health is an under spoken and often ignored topic in Indian society. The legal community is no different. Young lawyers battle many challenges as they don their black coats fresh out of law colleges. In addition to a passion for practicing law, a career in litigation requires one to deal with job insecurity, a long gestation period, low salaries and long hours. The lockdown has added to these woes and created new hurdles for even seasoned lawyers.
As the legal community grapples with the effects of lockdown, the Delhi High Court Women Lawyers Forum is organizing a ‘Virtual Canteen’ on ‘Mental Health during the Pandemic’ for legal professionals today (See picture below for details). Speaking with The Leaflet, Advocate Suruchi Suri said that the aim is to help legal professionals deal with mental health issues during the pandemic.
The webinar will be conducted by Dr Samir Parikh, Director at Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare. The webinar hopes to provide members of the legal community with tools by mental health professionals to survive the pandemic. Suri hopes that the webinar will address insecurities posed by the loss of jobs, lack of routine, and the unsettled feeling of not knowing when life, as we knew, would return. Repeatedly emphasizing the need to consult professionals and warning against self-diagnosis, Suri says that no one better than the lawyer community should understand the importance of professional expertise.
The term ‘Virtual Canteen’ really catches one’s attention. Court canteens have been safe spaces of discussion for lawyers and to a large extent function as support systems. Suri says: “Everyone misses the bonhomie of a canteen which is a big part of litigating life. We congregated there, we kept a watch on the board, and took advice for both personal and professional matters. It is not just about a samosa, but it is bonding over tea or coffee and sharing your lunch.”
Family systems form an important support system in the lawyers’ lives. However, for many, especially those working away from home, their work relationships become their primary support. Canteens form an important space of support and comfort for lawyers in the midst of a hectic day. “We want people away from families who are facing issues and are not able to access their contemporaries or senior colleagues to get the same comfort level that they got in a canteen. In the future we will focus on diverse topics to bring us all together. On some days we would like to have open sessions whether people can log in to chat generally,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges for lawyers navigating the domains of work from home and virtual courts. Suri points out: “The entire paradigm has changed. There is an uncertainty of clients not paying bills, budgets being slashed etc.”
Moreover, lawyers have been divested from access to their offices, support staff and even their case files. Many don’t have the facilities required for video conferencing. Those who do, Suri notes, find it difficult to appear in virtual courts with your entire family at home. A quiet space to work is now a luxury that many lawyers cannot avail.
The challenges are even greater for women lawyers. Suri says that many women lawyers have to juggle household work since domestic workers were not allowed into houses. While this may seem like a domestic issue, Suri goes on to say that it stops being domestic when it starts affecting your professional life.
The struggle for representation of women is heightened in these times. It is now for women to ensure that they are not left out of the competitive race in these coronavirus times. “Earlier we would have spoken about women representation, but with lockdown we are more focussed with issues that working professionals are facing while they work from home. Other than emotional support, we are dealing with very real issues of women lawyers being kept back in the fold rather than being consumed by family demands. It is always a challenge for women where they fall off the radar and this pandemic is the perfect opportunity where women can easily fall off the radar,” says Suri.
Faced with such challenges, frustration, and feeling of being left out can take a toll on mental health. Suri wants to address exactly that through the webinar on mental health. She says “Even small tech issues like downloading apps can be very intimidating for some people. We want to let them know that they can always count on somebody or the other for support to ensure that these teething issues don’t hold them back.”.
With the help of mental health professionals, Suri wants to help legal professionals identify signs and acts to look out for, for both themselves and their family members. This includes basic things like sleep pattern disruption. “In trying to keep safe all of us have become paranoid and that has become the norm now. Personally, I would like professionals to see what the problems are. We want to be able to look out for danger signs that affect one’s mental health particularly”.
A lot of this will require changing the culture around mental health conversations within the legal community. Right from financial independence, stable career, rigorous hours and pressures of the job; all these small things add up. “We have a way of shoving this under the carpet and saying this is the way it always has been and this is the way it will continue. That attitude really doesn’t harbour well because obviously people are crumbling. Otherwise, why would people leave the profession despite liking law and love practicing it. Obviously something is unsettling. That is what we will have to pinpoint and deal with,” she said.