The legal profession has a mental health problem. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression. Legal professionals experience depression more frequently than those working in other occupations. And lawyers rank fourth in suicide rates by profession.
The problem even manifests itself in law school. While 8 to 9 percent of law students report symptoms of depression immediately prior to beginning their legal education, this number spikes to 27 percent after the first semester and climbs to 34 percent after two semesters. By the third year of law school, 40 percent of law students struggle with symptoms of depression.
We have a mental health problem in our profession. And it’s prevalent enough that Illinois, along with several other states, includes mental health as one of the topics in attorneys’ mandatory professional responsibility CLE requirements. But while the CLE requirement is a necessary start, it’s not enough. There are too many lawyers hiding in the shadows suffering from mental health problems. And there are too many lawyers who do not suffer mental health problems unable or unwilling to see those who do. So let’s start somewhere else. And that somewhere is stigma.
The Stigma of Mental Health Problems
Last Saturday, the world celebrated Mental Health Day. The theme was Dignity in Mental Health. Communities around the world were encouraged to explore solutions to issues regarding the discrimination and stigma surrounding individuals coping with mental health conditions.
What do we mean when we say the stigma associated with mental health? There are two types: social stigma characterized by prejudicial attitudes towards people with mental health problems, and perceived stigma, the internalizing by the mental health sufferer of their perceptions of discrimination. Stigma results in exclusion, poor social support, poorer subjective quality of life, poorer vocational outcomes, and increased social isolation. Those with mental health problems hide their problem from others, particularly their work colleagues. Some manage with medication and therapy. Others may not seek help either because they are unwilling to do so, or because they do not where to go.
Here’s the truth. You very likely know an attorney suffering from a mental health problem. Depression, stress, suicidal thoughts, anxiety disorders, panic attacks – no one is immune to any of those, least of all those of us working in one of the most stressful professions in the world. Read some of these recovery stories from attorneys who turned to the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program for help. There’s Jean who suffered a panic attack in the courtroom, Patrick, a grandfather who suffered from anxiety and depression, Lisa who was undergoing immense stress from an ongoing child custody dispute, and Karen, a sufferer of bi-polar disorder. Read their stories. You might see yourself in them. You might see someone else. Or, you might see no one you know because you don’t believe you know anyone suffering from a mental health problem. But they’re out there, and very likely closer to you than you think.
Work Together to End the Stigma
In honor of World Mental Health Day, we as a profession need to work together to find solutions to end the stigma surrounding mental health problems. Illinois LAP has already started the conversation – in addition to their counseling services, they offer free CLEs on their website, as well as an annual training program to become a LAP volunteer and provide peer counseling for other lawyers.
Let’s continue that conversation by asking ourselves these questions. What can our workplaces do to promote wellness and mental health from day to day? How can we provide a mechanism for lawyers struggling with mental health to reach out and find help? How can we prevent professional repercussions for lawyers who do come forward? How can we ensure that our learning environment isn’t tainted with the fear of lawsuits? How can we build sources of assistance and support within our own professional community? Are there ways to alleviate the stressors unique to the legal profession that contribute to depression?
The onus to find a solution falls on all of us. It’s on those who suffer to speak out and share their stories and offer their ideas. More importantly, it’s on those who do not suffer to listen, without judgment or repercussion, to those who have long suffered from the social stigma of mental health problems. There are many lawyers out there who are struggling. We can all work together to help. Let’s not wait until it’s too late.
2Civility intern Jessica Saitel contributed to this post.