Ottawa lawyer Gordon Cudney recognized for shining spotlight on mental health

Gordon Cudney

It’s not every day that a partner at a multinational law firm openly acknowledges living with depression.

That Gordon Cudney has been helping to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health is impressive. But that he’s also been sharing his own mental health story in an effort to boost awareness and end stigma is not only commendable; it’s courageous.

On Friday, Cudney, a partner at the Ottawa office of Gowling WLG, will be one of eight individuals honoured at the Royal Foundation’s signature Inspiration Awards Gala, an annual black-tie awards dinner that brings together hundreds of Ottawa community and business leaders to celebrate the contributions being made to the mental health cause.

Cudney is vice-chair of the foundation’s board. He sat as a member of its cabinet for the $25-million campaign for mental health. He also co-chairs the Royal Ottawa Foundation’s annual golf tournament and has helped it grow from a charity event that netted $64,000 in 2009 to one that hauled in $217,000 last year.

“I’m just so honoured and thankful,” Cudney, 39, says of being chosen for the Volunteer Leader for Mental Health Award. “The Foundation team has been amazing to work with. The dedication from the staff is truly inspiring.”

Cudney, who advises clients on matters related to mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance, secured transactions and business succession planning, has one of the largest business law practices in Gowling’s Ottawa office.

Within the firm, Cudney is recognized as a leader. He serves as a mentor to young lawyers and is a role model for all, says Gowling WLG senior partner Scott Fletcher.

Changing attitudes

Cudney was just starting out as a young lawyer when he got involved with the Royal Ottawa Foundation, led at the time by the late Andrée Steel, who became his mentor. It was his golfing buddy, Daniel Alfredsson, then captain of the Ottawa Senators and a champion for mental health, who got him interested.

The Inspiration Awards, now in their 15th year, are a sign of how far Ottawa has come in shifting the attitudes that people have toward mental health, Cudney says.

“Back when I was first diagnosed, I don’t think you’d find many 40-year-old partners in large law firms putting themselves out there like this. I can’t speak to any statistics, but I would bet that the city of Ottawa – thanks to initiatives like D.I.F.D. (a youth mental health campaign) and the You Know Who I am campaign – is way ahead of the class on anti-stigma and awareness.

“I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it.”

Cudney faced hardships early in life. He and his sister were primarily raised by a single mom, Sheila Cudney, who was the daughter of Sen. Duncan Kenneth MacTavish and Janet MacTavish, from the prominent Southam family.

Sheila was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983 at age 39. She fought a valiant battle, but her cancer returned in 1999. She died four years later in Ottawa, when Cudney was only in his mid-20s.

In the aftermath of his mother’s terminal illness and death, Cudney became anxious and withdrawn. He couldn’t sleep and suffered from a loss of appetite. He attributed his symptoms to a physical ailment that he couldn’t diagnose, despite repeated trips to the doctor for blood tests.

“I never considered that it was mental,” he says.

Thanks to the support (and gentle prodding) of his then-girlfriend, now wife, it was agreed he should explore the possibility that his symptoms were the result of mental illness. Cudney sought treatment, received medication and eventually recovered. He learned to co-exist with his mental illness.

“I felt like it got easier after I got over my feelings of shame. It was about being accepting,” says Cudney, who graduated from Dalhousie University law school.

Cudney and his wife, Alex Taggart, who’s also a lawyer, have three children ages four, six and eight. It’s important to him that he maintains open and healthy discussions with them relating to mental health issues.

“I am able to pay more attention to my clients and recognize when something is taking a toll on them.”

A mental illness such as depression could be viewed by some as a sign of weakness in a field that’s as demanding and competitive as law, concedes Cudney, a 2017 Forty Under 40 award recipient.

Suicide rates among lawyers are higher than in many other professions, and substance abuse, particularly with alcohol, is common.

“For a client, you’re their leader, their strong voice, their advocate. They could say, ‘Why would I want that guy? We’re about to go into the trenches and he’s feeling a little off and admitting that he’s not sleeping at night,’” says Cudney.

Yet he says he’s found that his illness has made him a better, more empathetic lawyer. He tends to notice when a client is in distress.

“I am able to pay more attention to my clients and recognize when something is taking a toll on them,” he says. “I see it as value-add.”