Journey2Civility: Our Colleague’s Keeper

DepressionThis is the last post in a multi-part series looking back at the history and work of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism as we ready to launch our new website and communications channel.

Stressed Lawyers

As mentioned in prior posts, the mission of the Commission on Professionalism started with a concern by the Justices that the problem of win-at-all-costs advocacy was clouding attorneys’ judgment and damaging the profession.  A Committee on Civility, that eventually was re-named the Committee on Professionalism, researched the problem in part by holding town hall meetings of attorneys across the state. One of the themes that emerged from those town hall meetings was a recurring report that lawyers were feeling stressed out, isolated, and under increasing pressures to satisfy clients and make a living at their chosen career.

When the Supreme Court later established the continuing legal education rules, they specifically included “mental illness and addiction issues” as a topic of the professional responsibility education requirement.  We collaborate with the Lawyer’s Assistance Program of Illinois (LAP)  in providing awareness and education in this area. Several of LAP’s most popular educational programs, including programs that address stress, impairment and suicide, are available on its website.

Since LAP was created in 1980, the problems it helps lawyers with have become more complex.  Whereas the initial focus was to help lawyers impaired by alcohol abuse and addiction, over time, more and more lawyers seek LAP’s help for several different problems. Depression is the most significant mental health issue.  Closely related to depression is the issue of suicide.  In its latest annual report, LAP reported meeting with 12 lawyers who expressed suicide ideation and that another five actually made attempts on their lives.

This experience mirrors that of lawyers across our country and in Canada. Lawyers are more than twice as likely as the general population to suffer from substance abuse or mental illness.

Even more shocking, lawyers are more than six times as likely as the general population to commit suicide. This is not good, and organizations across the U.S. and in Canada are attempting to address this crisis affecting our profession. The various lawyers assistance programs come together under the umbrella of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and share ideas and initiatives to address this burgeoning problem.

LAP Resources for Lawyers

With a small staff and a host of trained volunteers, the Illinois LAP provides resources, information and interventions. The Executive Director, Robin Belleau, is both a lawyer and clinical professional.  Others on the staff and in the volunteer ranks are members of the legal profession as well as mental health professionals.

LAP volunteers and those who participate in its work are provided immunity by statute (the Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Intervenors and Reporter Immunity Law).  All client interactions are held in confidence as guaranteed by Supreme Court Rule 1.6.

Most contacts with LAP are self-referrals from those who recognize they have a problem and need help.  The problems range from temporary conditions such as stress that may be caused by relationship issues or work issues to on-going struggles with anxiety, depression or addiction. An assessment is made by a LAP clinician or the individual may be referred to an outside professional for an assessment.

Calls and questions also come from colleagues, friends, and family members who may be concerned that a lawyer may have severe substance abuse or mental problems. Some suicide warning signs you may see: depression, expressions of hopelessness, irritability, changes in weight.  If you are concerned that another lawyer may be thinking of suicide, ask him or her about it, encourage your friend to talk, encourage your friend to reach out to a physician or therapist.  For both you and your colleague, please reach out to LAP for advice and suggestions.

The practice of law has undergone and is undergoing unprecedented changes. Although the changes bring about stress, they also bring about opportunities. We lawyers are trained to critically think about problems and come up with solutions. We must remember that we are a community of professionals. When it comes to caring about mental health and well-being, let’s each be our colleague’s keeper.

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