The first network has been launched for barristers who have experienced mental illness.
BLEMI (Barristers with Lived Experience of Mental Illness) aims to be a “place where experience and support can be shared” by people who understand the “unique challenges” of the Bar.
Steve Broach, chair of BLEMI, and barrister Alice Irving said there was a danger that the Bar’s wellbeing agenda could “inadvertently” exclude this group of barristers, for whom “discriminatory and prejudicial practices are still a daily reality”.
Mr Broach, based at 39 Essex Chambers, and Ms Irving, of Doughty Street Chambers, said wellbeing initiatives often started from “an assumption that an individual does not have a mental illness, but they require assistance to be healthier, better able to manage stress, and better able to manage their work-life balance”.
Writing in the Bar Council’s Counsel magazine, the barristers said this approach did not “cater for those of us with pre-existing or ongoing mental health problems, where the issues are more complex” and where “the ‘wellbeing’ challenge” was “how to regain or maintain a good level of mental health while working or studying”.
They said BLEMI’s aims were to provide a support network for members and to make the Bar more accessible to people with lived experience of mental illness.
“We believe that the first aim itself has the potential to be transformative. Everyone knows of members of the Bar who have experienced mental health problems, ranging significantly in type, duration and severity.
“However, before BLEMI, there was no forum for those of us with lived experience of mental illness to come together to provide mutual support.”
Since BLEMI’s soft launch last year, the barristers said it had grown into a group of 20 current and aspiring barristers, ranging in seniority from students and pupils to established practitioners.
“Some of us have a history of mental illness in our past; other members are currently experiencing mental health problems.
“We recognise that we are not mental health professionals and BLEMI is no substitute for appropriate professional support. What BLEMI does provide is a place where experience and support can be shared, by individuals who understand the unique challenges of the Bar.”
The barristers said that, as well as acting as a forum, the next stage of BLEMI’s work would be seeking to make the Bar more accessible.
“What we all have in common is that we have experienced the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness in wider society.
“While our members have in some cases benefitted from the general trend towards greater acceptance and understanding of mental illness in society in recent years, discriminatory and prejudicial practices are still a daily reality for our members. This is what we want to change.”
However, the priority would remain supporting members to maintain and improve their own mental health.
Mr Broach and Ms Irving said that, during the pandemic, it became clear that there was “a total absence” of peer support and advocacy for barristers with lived experience of mental illness.
The Bar Council’s special interest networks included five relating to gender, three relating to race, two relating to sexual orientation and two relating to religion and belief. None related to mental health.
Although the Bar Council has a disability panel, not all individuals with lived experience of mental illness identify as disabled.
The barristers added: “None of us involved in BLEMI have any easy answers to the challenges faced by barristers with lived experience of mental illness. What we do have is a very clear message that ‘we exist’.”