Magistrate David Heilpern.
Magistrate David Heilpern.

'Too scared to sleep': magistrate reveals secret battle

A NORTH Coast magistrate revealed he had become "scared about going to sleep" and would wake up screaming, sweating and panicked after nightmares about horrific cases.

Speaking at a sold-out talk at the Federal Court in Sydney last week, David Heilpern gave a rare insight into the internal struggles he faced during his two decades as a NSW Local Court magistrate.

The Southern Cross University alumni said it was time to discuss the mental trauma that came with doing the job he described as "an extraordinary privilege".

He spoke about the personal impacts of being confronted with shocking evidence while presiding over a series of child pornography cases in the state's south in 2005.

"I began thrashing around in my sleep, making it impossible for my wife to remain in bed with me for fear of getting struck," Mr Heilpern said.

"I thought it would pass, but it did not."

After seeking professional help, Mr Heilpern believed he had been "cured".

But a decade later, after "a bad six months" in court and the sudden death of a friend, a "good night's sleep had (again) become a distant memory".  

Confronting his ill mental health wasn't easy for the Lismore-based magistrate, who for years "stubbornly refused" to take time off and seek help, despite pleas from family and friends.  

He said his plight was "pathetic" when compared to the determination of victims, and acknowledged he was reluctant to "admit to mental fragility".  

For these reasons, and because of the impact it would have on the broader court system, Mr Heilpern soldiered on.  

"After all, if the magistrate gets sick at short notice literally hundreds can be inconvenienced," he said.

By speaking out, Mr Heilpern doesn't intend to "become some sort of poster boy for vicarious trauma or PTSD and the judiciary" but he said silence wasn't the answer.

He made it clear he wasn't alone by referencing in his speech the mental adversities of other judicial officers.

"These are not signs in my opinion of eccentricity or idiosyncrasy - they are signs of mental ill health," Mr Heilpern said. 

"There is a veil based on assumptions regarding judicial officers.

"The sooner that veil is lifted, the sooner judicial officers can admit to difficulties, access help and better serve the community."  

He hoped to make a difference by telling his story through the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, a charity that aims to foster mental health support and awareness within the legal profession. 

"I hope that it engenders debate, and that my personal experience is useful in formulating approaches in protecting the law's most precious assets - its people," he said.

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