When asked why you became a lawyer, a common response is “I want to help people.” And we do just that. We help people get their homes back, we help them resolve disputes, get child support, find justice, among many other things. But, what about helping people in our own profession?
To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. A recent study of more than 13,000 lawyers --The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations For Positive Change--found that 17 percent of practicing lawyers experienced some level of depression, 14 percent experienced severe anxiety, 23 percent had mild or moderate anxiety, and six percent reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year. We throw these words around—words such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD—but do we understand their meanings? If more lawyers get familiar with some of the common ailments that plague some of those in the legal profession, we can do a better job of helping them. Helping our colleagues in distress will help maintain public confidence in the profession and reduce sigma attached to mental health and substance use disorders.
Common mental disorders
Depression is different than sadness or grief. It is not something that you can just “snap out of.” It is an illness lasting more than two weeks that negatively affects the way you feel and the way you function.
A major symptom of depression is a loss of interest in the things you enjoy. Other symptoms include:
Inappropriate behavior, moods
Decreasing quality of performance
Inappropriate pleadings, decisions
Co-workers and staff "gossip" about changes in behavior
Malpractice and disciplinary claims
Missed hearings, appointments, depositions
Loss of clients, practice, respect
Anxiety disorder, the most common mental illness, affects 37 percent of lawyers. Anxiety is when you become tense in anticipation of a future event. Anxiety 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 excessive worrying, agitation, restlessness, trouble falling or staying asleep, and avoiding social situations.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs in some people who have witnessed a terrifying or shocking event. The person may have flashbacks, bad dreams or terrible thoughts, which prevent the person from doing his or her normal activities. Some people who suffer from PTSD can be easily startled, have difficulty sleeping, have angry outbursts, negative and distorted thoughts.
There are three types of bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). Symptoms include:
Decreased need for sleep
Poor decision-making — for example, going on buying sprees, taking sexual risks or making foolish investments
No interest in activities
Sleeping too much
Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
Dementia is the development of multiple cognitive deficits manifested by both memory impairment (impaired ability to learn new information or to recall previously learned information) and one (or more) of the following cognitive disturbances:
Aphasia (language disturbance);
Apaxia (impaired ability to carry out motor activities despite intact motor function);
Agnosia (failure to recognize or identify objects despite intact sensory function);
Disturbance in executive functioning (i.e., planning, organizing, sequencing, abstracting).
These cognitive deficits cause significant impairment in social or occupational functioning, and represent a significant decline from a previous level of functioning.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a brain disorder that interferes with normal functioning. Major symptoms include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Some signs include:
Making careless mistakes
Not follow through on duties
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. Many people with schizophrenia may seem like they have lost touch with reality. Symptoms include:
Reduced feelings of pleasure in everyday life
Difficulty beginning and sustaining activities
Trouble focusing or paying attention
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions). Common symptoms include:
Fear of germs or contamination
Unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts
Aggressive thoughts toward others or self
Having things symmetrical or in a perfect order
Excessive cleaning and/or handwashing
Ordering and arranging things in a particular, precise way
Repeatedly checking on things, such as repeatedly checking to see if the door is locked or that the oven is off
The good news
All of these common mental disorders have one thing in common: They interfere with a lawyer’s duty to be competent. But, even though some lawyers suffer from these ailments, the good news is all of these are treatable with talk therapy and/or medication.
You can help!
Some people believe that, when they notice a colleague is having issues, that they should stay out of it, that it is none of their business. But, helping someone with a mental difficulty is your business, especially when it affects our profession.
The first step is to have a conversation with the person. Let the person know that you noticed a change in behavior and that you want to help. Listen with an open mind, ask questions, and encourage the person to get help.
Refer the person to the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program. We help Ohio lawyers with all of life’s stresses. No ailment is too small or too large. We are your confidential place to go when life becomes overwhelming. We have helped thousands of lawyers recover from stress, depression, anxiety and all mental health disorders.
As lawyers, we help people. Let’s start the conversation about helping our own profession recover from the stresses of being a lawyer. Helping people with mental illness can only help our profession become stronger and remain competent to our clients. We owe that to them.