The Hardest letter I have ever written

The hardest letter I have ever written

Requesting leave to address mental health issues was one of the toughest things Magistrate David Heilpern has ever done, Lynn Elsey reports.


In front of a sold-out crowd, magistrate David Heilpern decided to make some of the personal challenges he has faced in the NSW courts public, in an effort to raise awareness of mental health issues in the profession.

Heilpern shared his challenges and insights regarding vicarious trauma, PTSD, fatigue, the inability to recognise problems and reluctance to seek help during his lecture at the 2017 Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation Sydney Lecture on 25 October. Heilpern was appointed Magistrate of the NSW Local Court in 1999, following a distinguished legal career in criminal law.

During his lecture and in the related paper he Heilpern recounted years of exposure to stressful situations in the NSW criminal courts, including having to watch videos of child pornography and seeing the “pale death of innocence and trust in the eyes of so many young children”, having “get inside the head of the perpetrator” and living with death threats .

But Heilpern says admitting he needed help was one of the most difficult things he has ever tackled. A few years ago, in the midst of having to deal with a number of stressful cases and events, Heilpern realised he needed professional help. He found that writing a letter to the chief magistrate, requesting leave so he could address his mental health issues, was the “hardest letter I have ever written.”

During his lecture Heilpern raised six key issues which need to be addressed in order to “lift the judicial veil” on the serious mental health issues affecting judicial officers, which will benefit the overall community:

1. Modern technology – has made trauma more “in your face” and difficult to erase.

2. Decision fatigue – too much is being asked of legal practitioners, at all levels.

3. Viewing emotion as bad, intellect as good – suppressing emotion, in a “quest for apparent objectivity,” is a recipe for mental health problems.

4. Security threats – which are traumatic and pose a real danger to mental health.

5. Loneliness of the job – there is often little opportunity for informal talking or debriefing to reduce stress

6. More research – research on mental health issues and the judiciary is limited and out of date, more needs to be done in order to address the issues and suggest remedies.

7 November 2017