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Addressing Mental Health Issues in the Legal Field

Updated: 5 days ago

By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp


What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation. —Glenn Close


A Pervasive Problem in Our Profession


Lawyers face extraordinary professional stressors in the best of times. Long hours, unrelenting deadlines, and the adversarial nature of the legal system can be a recipe for emotional chaos. The landmark 2016 report “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns among American Attorneys affirmed the extent to which lawyers are disproportionately impacted by depression, anxiety, stress, and hazardous drinking behavior.


Professional stressors and personal challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have taken their toll. On May 3, 2021, ALM Media released the findings of its 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey, in which 70 percent of 3,200 legal professionals surveyed reported that the pandemic has adversely affected their mental health. While isolation was the key factor, the lockdown, working remotely, and fear of job loss were also cited as contributing to the decline in personal well-being.


Stigma as a Barrier to Seeking Treatment


Despite these pervasive mental health concerns—and the often co-occurring unhealthy reliance on drugs and alcohol to cope with stress—lawyers are generally reluctant to seek professional help or treatment because of stigma. According to the 2016 report, the most often cited reason for not getting help for behavioral health problems is that lawyers did not want others to find out they had a problem and/or needed help. Attorneys cited fears that others would find out they sought help, and thus had a problem, which could discredit them and possibly affect their license. Devastatingly, 63 percent of attorneys did not receive support for their mental health concerns, and 93 percent did not seek any help or services for alcohol or drug abuse.


These trends begin early on. Research demonstrates that law students also experience higher levels of distress symptoms than the general population, as well as limited help-seeking behaviors. Traci Cipriano, JD, PhD, provided this important insight: “There are many reasons why attorneys do not seek help for mental health issues. A major barrier is stigma around mental health in the legal profession, which has been reinforced with bar exam questions about mental health and feeds into concerns about appearing less competent and weak.” Historically, the vast majority of bar applications require questions about applicants’ mental health. At present, 41 jurisdictions’ bars include character and fitness questions about the existence of a mental health condition or impairment, and 33 jurisdictions ask about mental health treatment. Unsurprisingly, such questions have a chilling effect on students’ willingness to seek help, with 45 percent of law students saying they would be discouraged from seeking mental health treatment out of fear it would negatively affect their bar admission.


Changing Culture to Combat Stigma


Given the pervasiveness of mental health concerns in our profession—and the accompanying unwillingness of law students and attorneys to seek help—we have to ask ourselves how we got to this point. The 2016 study on lawyer impairment ultimately found a number of contributing factors, including:


1. Help-seeking behaviors are disincentivized, and dysfunctional coping mechanisms, such as drinking, are widespread and tolerated;


2. Heavy and/or regular drinking are highly normalized and often encouraged, while self-care, healthy boundaries, and overall wellness are grievously under-prioritized; and


3. Historic and cultural reluctance of the legal profession to acknowledge and address the issues in a meaningful way, including lack of systemic buy-in toward proactive change, continues.


An intrinsic part of our mission as co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution is building an inclusive, mindful legal community that prioritizes holistic individual and organizational health. We believe that generating open and honest conversations, including sharing our own personal struggles with mental health and addiction, will encourage others to seek needed help, as well as promote cultural change within our profession.


To combat the prevailing stigma in our profession, it is imperative that we actively retool the culture of the legal field to openly acknowledge mental health concerns, as well as create an environment where law students and attorneys feel safe to seek mental health and addiction treatment. After developing depression and anxiety as a law student, Becky publicly shared her struggles with classmates and asked for their support, and she also utilized her school’s Counseling and Psychological Services, which offers affordable mental health services for university students. (Ironically, the year Becky sat for the bar in Kansas, the state temporarily suspended bar questions pertaining to an applicant’s mental health; however, the Kansas bar currently employs such questions.) As the head of her law school–sponsored mentoring program, Becky continued to share her story and actively encouraged 1Ls to seek support if they found themselves struggling to cope with the high stress of the law school environment.


By normalizing conversations about and implementing strategies to effectively cope with burnout, mental health issues, and substance abuse within our profession, we can create purposeful environments that safeguard and support our ability to be happy, healthy, and productive legal advocates and people.


Support and Resources


If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health challenges, we urge you to seek help and support right now. You are not alone! In addition to professional treatment or therapy, many resources are available, including the following:


• The ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) has compiled a comprehensive Mental Health Resources web page, providing information on anxiety, depression, stress, and substance use. Also provided is a directory of lawyer assistance programs for each jurisdiction, as well as strategies for staying mentally healthy.


• “Lawyer Wellness,” a private Facebook group created by Alabama attorney Eric C. Davis, is composed of close to 1,000 supportive lawyers throughout the country—many who can no doubt identify with any struggles that you may have and frequently offer themselves up as resources.


CoLAP’s profession-wide anti-stigma campaign includes videos and other materials created in support of the mission to “raise awareness and challenge bias around mental health and substance use disorders.” No doubt, many will identify with the personal stories of struggle and recovery shared by legal professionals in conjunction with this important project.


• “Stress Relief in under a Minute” is a meditation designed by Becky for busy attorneys. Cultivating a mindfulness practice can be an effective tool for reducing stress and managing anxiety. The Legal Burnout Solution has also compiled a Mindfulness Resources Guide for those interested in learning simple strategies to promote stress resilience. Email us at cindy@legalburnout.com, and we will forward it to you.


Next month, we will explore the effects of secondary trauma on the mental health of legal professionals.


Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq. are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution, a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers.


© 2021. Originally published in GP Solo eReport, May 2021 Issue (Vol. 10, No. 10) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

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