Scott R. Mote, Esq.
4 ways judges can promote wellness
It is no surprise that the world we live in will always include sudden change, uncertainty and stress. In addition to this, judges have other stresses, such as a heavy docket, the impact of their decisions, unprepared attorneys, media scrutiny, self-represented litigants, a lack of public understanding of the judicial process, long hours, and having to rule on contentious family issues. It is also no surprise that the uncertainty of the world coupled with the regular stresses of being a judge will cause an increase in mental health and substance use disorders.
As we try to learn and navigate this world full of stress, burnout, anxiety and depression, it is important to understand and help create awareness of these increasing mental health and substance use issues. A judge earns the trust and confidence of the public by fulfilling his or her duties and adhering to ethical standards. People respect and look up to judges, which is why judges can play a crucial role in promoting wellness in the legal profession through the following four ways.
Recognize the symptoms of mental health/substance use disorders.
Depression is a common mood disorder that affects the way you feel, think and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating and working. Depression is not about feeling down or blue for a couple days. Depression symptoms last longer than two weeks, and the severity and signs and symptoms of depression varies from person to person. A person who is depressed should see a medical professional for help.
Common signs of depression:
Sleeping too much or too little
Work is not meaningful
Feelings of hopelessness
Can’t wait for the work day to end
Nothing to look forward to
An example of depression
Judge Z has not been feeling like himself lately. He used to look forward to going to work each day and working with his colleagues. He loved the challenge of deciding cases. Now he finds it difficult to wake up in the morning and dreads going to the courthouse. He feels inadequate, like he is not that good at his job, and negative thoughts keep popping up in his mind. He feels like he has nothing to look forward to. Judge Z needs to seek help for his depression.
Anxiety is a normal human response in certain situations, but may become a disorder if you feel anxious most of the time. Anxiety is when you become tense in anticipation of a future event. It also makes a person avoid certain events because of fear.
You have probably heard of anxiety attacks, where a person is so worried about an event that causes the person to sweat, shake uncontrollably, and fear losing control. Other common symptoms of anxiety include:
Shortness of breath
Increased heart rate and palpitations
Feelings of impending doom
An example of anxiety
Judge C has been worried about the outcome of a certain case, and it is affecting her sleep. Racing thoughts occupy her mind, even when she is trying to concentrate. She over-thinks the case, and dreads sitting on the bench. She has a constant fear of impending doom. Sometimes she gets so overwhelmed, her body shakes and she finds it difficult to breathe. Judge C decided to see a doctor about her feelings and was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. Her doctor put her on a plan and she is now on the road to recovery.
Substance use disorder
Sometimes, depression and anxiety can become so overwhelming that people drink or take drugs to cope with the mental health disorder (aka "self-medication").This can eventually become problematic if drinking and/or taking drugs is affecting your daily responsibilities and if you are unable to cut down or stop using mood-altering substances despite attempts to stop.
Signs of substance use disorder (drugs and/or alcohol):
Problems at work
Physical health issues
Withdrawal from activities
Example of substance use disorder
Judge C has made it obvious to others that she has been abusing substances before, during and after court. She stumbles on the bench, slurs her words, smells like alcohol, and she falls asleep in her office. You approach her about how others at the court have been noticing that she has been behaving differently and not in accordance with her judicial duties. Judge C shoos you away, and tells you to mind your own business because you do not know what you are talking about. She claims that she is perfectly fine.
In the example above, a concerned judge approached Judge C about her issues. Some people might be hesitant to do this. We have been taught to mind our own business and look the other way. We do not want to get involved. We are too busy. We are afraid of legal implications. We are in a different political party. Nothing in the statute creating my court gives me authority to oversee another judge/magistrate. We do not know how to help or what to say. But it is our responsibility to try to help. Helping another legal professional does not mean that you are “telling” on this person. It means that you notice that this person needs help, and you are taking action. If a person were having chest pains or fainted in front of you, you would most likely seek medical attention immediately. Why not call for help when you see that a colleague is in mental health distress?
Friends, colleagues and loved ones can truly make a difference and influence a person to get help. If you notice a colleague is having a difficult time, communicate that you value his or her well-being, and show them the path to treatment. If you have conquered mental illness, be an advocate for other legal professionals who might be afraid to speak up. Share your story so that others can feel confident sharing theirs.
Lead by example.
When Judge D started feeling anxious and depressed, he realized that he was drinking too much and starting to feel even worse. Instead of following that dangerous path and continuing to self-medicate, he decided to take action and learn how to cope with his emotions. He started exercising, meditating, and following a new diet. He started speaking openly with other colleagues about his struggles. He spoke with a therapist once a week, who taught him new coping mechanisms.
When others in the profession see you taking control of your life and not letting emotions take over, they will look up to you and want to follow in your footsteps.
Acknowledge that mental health issues exist in the legal profession.
Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to mental illness. Sometimes, people define others by their illnesses rather than who they are as individuals. This happens often, which leads the person living with mental illness to refuse to get help because of feelings of shame, isolation and hopelessness.
As a judge, you help people, and you are a leader in your community. Help end the stigma of mental health. Learn the facts about mental health, be cognizant of them, and help yourself or someone you think is struggling. Be quick to dispel something that is not true. Avoid labeling people with negative words, such as “crazy,” “wacko,” “loony,” or by their diagnosis. Instead of saying someone is a “schizophrenic” say “a person living with schizophrenia.” Treat people with mental illnesses with respect and dignity, as you would anybody else.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Judicial Advisory Group, a peer-based confidential assistance group that helps judges and magistrates with personal and professional issues. For more information, go to www.ohiolap.org/judges or call (800) 348-4343.