Breaking the lawyer mental health taboo

In my experience, lawyers avoid any discussion of mental health issues among colleagues. Maybe it’s the bravado associated with the legal profession or that we are marketing our brainpower to clients that makes the subject particularly taboo. I have been practicing for more than eight years and the last time I remember mental health and the legal profession being discussed was around the time of my admission to the Maryland Bar. It could be that information is given to the newly-minted attorneys about the Lawyers Assistance Program, which is run under the auspices of the Maryland State Bar Association.

Mental health has been investigators’ focus as they search for answers as to what could have driven a young pilot to intentionally steer a plane full of passengers into the French Alps. Generally, the decisions that lawyers make do not involve life or death but rather how to most ably support and prosecute a client’s cause. In return for the trust granted to us by our clients, we owe them duties of competence and diligence amongst others. Additionally, most of us have personal responsibilities to our families, loved ones and the community at large.

Like many problems, it would be better if we faced the issues of mental health and substance abuse, which often go hand-in-hand, head on. Instead, topics such as mental state and suicide are still discussed in a whisper, if at all. Some quick statistics bring home the magnitude of the issue. Lawyers, when compared to the rest of the population, are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression and are fourth in suicide incidence by profession. Additionally, alcoholism within the profession may effect between 15 percent and 24 percent of those practicing. To put that in perspective, if even 20 percent of Maryland lawyers were battling alcoholism, that would equal more than 7,000 members of the Bar.

In Maryland, judges, lawyers, law students and legal staff may utilize the resources of the Lawyers Assistance Program, which offers a number of services, including short-term counseling and interventions.  If you are concerned about a fellow lawyer or judge, the assistance program will accept incoming referrals. Contact the counselors directly for more information on the process and the confidentiality surrounding their services.

Breaking the ice on the topics of mental health and substance abuse is very difficult. But we, as a profession, should not shy away from uneasy conversations about “private” matters. If your friend or colleague is having a rough time, say something. Too many lawyers are suffering and too many bad results await those who do not seek help.

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