January 29, 2020

I have two kids in therapy, with diagnosed social anxiety disorders. I am grateful that it is the year 2020.

While we encounter more people unaware or intolerant of such conditions than there should be in this day and age, when I reflect upon what the world was like when I was growing up, I feel blessed that is not the world that my children have to experience.

As highlighted on days like Let’s Talk Day, there is a growing movement to end stigma and have conversations. There is widespread interest in offering understanding and support.

Lola the Line and the Elements of DesignMy kids do not feel ashamed of needing therapy or inclined to hide their disorders for social acceptance; their world is an evolved world, where open discussions can be had and judgment - for the most part - is withheld. I find that younger generations are wise beyond their years when it comes to such matters.

Then, I look at the world I work in as an ADR practitioner. Traditional legal processes are rigid, elitist and unaccommodating. You have to participate in a particular way to enhance your chances of success. I hold out hope for change and do my best to promote it both in the processes I facilitate in my practice and through my academic contributions.

As I try to reconcile these two worlds, I consider things like how my children would be received as witnesses. They often cannot make eye contact when they speak to people they do not know – even with certain people they do know.

The environment in which one traditionally offers evidence is intense. I know this first hand because I have been a witness myself, many times, in various court and tribunal settings. Even though I have participated in a witness capacity primarily as an expert, with no personal ties to the outcome of a case, the experience was always stressful and draining.

My kids are honest, good people. They are respectful and strive to do the right thing. They are incredible, not uncredible.

In a traditional process, however, they would be terrible witnesses. Their discomfort would project from their voices. They would not be physically capable of looking an interrogator or adjudicator in the eye. They would be judged for the way that they would participate. For behaviour beyond their control. Behaviour, in my view, that only matters because of systemic and traditional biases which are superficial and conformist in nature.

It makes me wonder why the system needs to be this way. I am sure it will not be when younger generations have their chance to influence how these processes work.

The World Health Organization suggests that 1 in 4 people worldwide are affected by mental or neurological disorders sometime in their lives. Closer to home, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health offers that 1 in 2 Canadians will experience mental illness by the time they reach 40. The fact is that, whether we recognize it or not, we all know many people with mental health challenges. They include our loved ones, colleagues and clients.

In practice, we can offer flexible and accommodating processes to those we work with. I have often said that ADR is at its best when it can be catered to the particular conflict and the unique individuals involved in it. Having “the forum fit the fuss” is not a new or novel concept. Frank Sander introduced it before I was born! All that we, as ADR practitioners, really have to do is practice what we preach.

We are all capable of modelling kindness, being thoughtful with our language selection, listening and asking, educating ourselves and talking about it. Those 5 ways of helping - offered to end stigma and promote positive change - are easy for ADR practitioners to embrace. They flow naturally from what we do and are skills indicative of being capable in the field.

The importance of this extends beyond practice, however.

Perhaps the most important thing that an ADR practitioner can do is take care of their own mental health.

Fellow practitioners, I implore you to…

Be kind to yourself.

Listen to what your mind and body are telling you.

Understand both your limits and how you thrive.

Avoid trapping yourself with labels or concerns about how others will judge you.

Talk and get help when you need it.

It is the year 2020. There are many resources available to support you and everyone needs a little support sometimes. There is no shame in being attuned to your needs.

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by Marc Bhalla, Hons.B.A., C.Med, Q.Arb, MCIArb
(Mediator & Arbitrator)

To learn more about Marc's practice, please visit Marc on Mediation.