Have you ever played the game “Would you rather?” If you aren’t familiar with the game, you are given two choices and you pick the option you think is better. For example, would you rather eat a stick of butter or a cockroach? Would you rather go to Italy or Spain? Seems easy and fun, right?
But what if you were asked this question:
Would you rather lose your law license or seek help for mental illness?
The question is a tough one for a lawyer to answer. You might not suffer from depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or bi-polar disorder, but what if you did? Would you seek help, or would you suffer in silence and possibly lose your law license?
According to “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being,” the report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, “40% to 70% of disciplinary proceedings and malpractice claims against lawyers involve substance use or depression, and often both.”1 Another study reported that 28% of attorneys suffer from depression, 19% from anxiety and 23% from stress.2 If left untreated, mental illness has the capacity to destroy your career.
It seems that lawyers are usually quick to get treatment for a virus or a disease, yet they are reluctant to seek medical attention for their mental health issues. Most lawyers are afraid to seek help because of the stigma that surrounds mental health: adverse reactions by others; asking for help is a sign of weakness; getting help comes with career repercussions; negative consequences, etc. The ironic thing is that if you don’t get help for your mental illnesses, you could eventually lose your license, which is the most negative consequence available.
The two most common barriers to lawyers seeking help for mental health issues, according to “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being,” is not wanting others to find out they need help and concerns regarding privacy and confidentiality. As a profession, we all need to do our part in reversing the negativity that surrounds mental health issues.
What can we do to change this stigma?
Judges can set the tone
Because judges hold such a respectful position and are leaders in the profession, they can help set the tone for mental wellness. Judges can start the conversation about how important it is to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout, stress, anxiety, etc. They can reinforce the fact that seeking help for mental illness does not result in negative consequences. Just starting the conversation about this topic can help alleviate some of the concerns that lawyers have about their mental wellness.
Solo/individual lawyers can help educate others
If you are a solo lawyer, you can talk with someone who is open about his or her battle with depression and/or anxiety, and encourage others to do the same. Once you get to know a person who has overcome mental health issues, you can begin to understand the depths of the subject. “Individuals of the general population who meet and interact with people with mental illnesses are likely to lessen their levels of prejudice.”3
Get involved. The CMBA has a Mental Health and Wellness Committee in which one of its goals is to educate the bench and bar about mental health issues in the legal profession. The Committee has a website that provides lawyers with wellness tools and resources.4 If you aren’t interested in joining a committee, you can help spread the word to other legal professionals about how important it is to seek treatment for mental health issues.
Small and large law firms can create wellness committees
A mental health and wellness committee at your law office can reinforce the fact that you value and support lawyer well-being. It can help your colleagues feel comfortable in asking for time off to improve their situation. It gives lawyers resources and guidance on the path to well-being.
Talk about it. Have an open dialogue about mental health. 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. On the other hand, 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.
Law students, much like lawyers, are reluctant to seek help if they feel stressed and overwhelmed. They should learn early in their education that taking control of their mental health issues is more important than earning the highest grades. “Well-being has been linked to improved academic performance, and, conversely, research reflects that well-being deficits connect to impaired cognitive performance.”3
Let’s help each other
These are just a few small steps to take to destigmatize mental illness. I’m asking you to help our profession. We became lawyers to help people. Let’s help each other.
Would you rather be a part of a healthy legal profession or a profession burdened by stigma?
If you are unhappy, depressed, suffering from substance abuse, burnout, or stress, and you believe it is affecting your life, the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program can provide CONFIDENTIAL help. For more information, go to ohiolap.org or call (800) 348-4343 or (614) 586-0621.
This article was originally published in the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Journal.
1 The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change” from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf.
2 “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys” by Krill, Patrick R. JD, LLM; Johnson, Ryan MA; Albert, Linda MSSW
Journal of Addiction Medicine: January/February 2016 - Volume 10 - Issue 1 - p 46–52.
3 “Challenging the Public Stigma of Mental Illness: A Meta-Analysis of Outcome Studies” by Patrick W. Corrigan, Psy.D.; Scott B. Morris, Ph.D.; Patrick J. Michaels, M.S.; Jennifer D. Rafacz, Ph.D.; Nicolas Rüsch, M.D., October 2012 Vol. 63 No. 10 PSYCHIATRIC SERVICES https://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/appi.ps.201100529
4 www.clemetrobar.org/cmba_prod/wellness. The website already has helpful information, but the committee is in the process of adding more resources.