What a few months this has been! We can say with some certainty that emotions have been intensely and widely felt. Unfortunately, many of those emotions have been destructive to our mental health—fear, anxiety, loneliness and depression have accompanied us through this long quarantine and made it harder to persevere and perform at the high standards we set for ourselves. On top of that, widespread concerns about justice and community relations are being voiced around the world, likely upsetting whatever for-the-moment equilibrium we have managed to achieve in new-normal lives.
Lawyers are at high risk for mental health problems to start out with, as the 2016 ABA-Hazelden study made clear. Astronomical levels of mental distress were found among attorneys, with 28%, 19%, and 23% experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively, outpacing the general population and other high-performance professions. For example, attorneys experience problematic drinking at a higher rate than surgeons, who they are often compared to. And that was before Covid-19, racial injustice and rioting took to our streets.
In addition to the pain and lost opportunity that these mental health conditions impose on individual attorneys, clients risk getting insufficient or even incorrect legal advice from distressed attorneys, and employers who turn a blind eye to their lawyers’ mental states risk malpractice liability.
What are we doing to help combat these discouraging statistics, which must be rising significantly over the last few months? New York has announced that it will no longer ask questions about mental health on bar applications, following Washington, Connecticut and Louisiana, among others. But that is still a minority position despite the rising concern that lawyers don’t ask for help with these too-prevalent issues because of a fear of rejection or stigma. Some of the conclusions made in the ABA-Hazelden study are the need for greater investments in and more interventions available at lawyer-assistance programs, and that “The confidential nature of lawyer-assistance programs should be more widely publicized in an effort to overcome the privacy concerns that may create barriers between struggling attorneys and the help they need.”
What individual lawyers can do to start on a road to better mental health is to recognize and accept their emotional states, regardless of how painful that may be, and then look for help to address them. It is not a sign of weakness to be sensitive to the many dislocations occurring during this difficult time. It is strength that opens our eyes to our distress and prompts us to search for ways forward. Regular meditation, good nutrition and physical exercise are self-help steps that can be taken immediately. Connecting with colleagues, friends and relatives–which lawyers can be slow to do–can also help us recognize the value we have to others and they have to us.
Employers can check in regularly with their lawyers. Yes, lawyers often like to work alone and may be relishing their privacy rather than decrying the isolation, but even committed introverts can have too much of what starts out as a good thing. If a lawyer is not keeping regular schedules and meeting deadlines, their situation should be explored and assistance offered.
As is often repeated, we are all in this together. It is a mantra that is true. Working together, with our colleagues, friends and families, on maintaining our equilibrium will put us on the best path to mental health.