DAYL President’s Page
Out of the Darkness: Shedding Light on Mental Illness in the Legal Profession
The statistics for lawyers are scary. A 2016 study conducted jointly by the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that of the nearly 15,000 lawyers surveyed a whopping 19% reported having severe anxiety symptoms (https://journals.lww.com/journaladdictionmedicine/Fulltext/2016/02000/The_Prevalence_of_Substance_Use_and_Other_Mental.8.aspx). Further, American Lawyer Media’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey, published in 2020, found that 64% of respondents felt they had anxiety (https://www.law.com/2020/02/19/lawyers-reveal-true-depth-of-the-mental-health-struggles/). The same ABA study found almost 21% of lawyers may be suffering from addiction and another 28% were experiencing depression. Even more concerning, lawyers under 30 years old have a higher risk of experiencing these mental health struggles than their older colleagues.
I fear that these numbers have only increased since these surveys with the utter chaos the last twelve months have inflicted on each of us personally and professionally. It’s no secret that the pandemic has created a more isolating environment, making it extremely difficult for each of us to reach out and ask for help. We have been faced with new challenges and stressors in this pandemic-based work space, including how to best advocate for our clients via online platforms and without in-person interaction; how to separate home and work when the two are inextricably intertwined; and figuring out how to look forward to the next day when each one brings the same monotony. I have always personally found my strength through shared experiences with friends and colleagues. Knowing you are not alone can sometimes be the best catalyst to getting professional help and understanding it’s okay to not be okay. So I want to share my story of struggles with mental illness with the goal that it will help de-stigmatize the issues and perhaps allow one young lawyer to realize there is hope and that it will get better.
From a young age, probably 11 or 12 years old, I felt that there was something wrong with me. When I felt a loss of control through difficulties in relationships or perceived failures in life, I would either spiral into a dark void of tears and emptiness for weeks or I would try to re-gain control of the situation through unhealthy behaviors, including starvation and self-harm. However, due to the stigma in this world, I never received a formal diagnosis of anxiety or major depressive disorder until I was 31 years old.
It was the end 2016 and I had just experienced a job change. I had been practicing family law for five years and felt unhappy in the direction my life was taking (even though I was engaged, had bought a house, had two perfect puppies, was involved in community organizations, and had a strong friend group). There was no joy in coming to work, which is where we as lawyers spend the vast majority of our time. I was just waiting for something bad to happen and was in survival mode. It felt like I was a ticking time bomb, ready to jump out of my skin at any moment. I was overworked, over-extended, over-volunteered, and just trying to please everyone around me.
The stress of it all finally came crashing down in the form of a full blown panic attack on my way home from work. My heart was pounding. I began hyperventilating. I had to pull over on the side of the road, because my vision was blurred from the tears and I was out of breath. That evening, I told my then fiancé and now husband that I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt like a shell of a person just going through the motions. I needed help to find happiness and meaning again. That was when I finally found a counselor and later a psychiatrist who helped me understand myself, get on medication, and find healthy coping mechanisms.
So why did it take so long to get help? Why did it take a major event of me reaching a breaking point to seek the treatment I had needed for decades? I personally believe it’s because (1) there’s general stigma in society about mental illness; and (2) as lawyers, we take care of everyone except ourselves. It’s time to take care of each other and look out for our colleagues. It’s time to stop looking at mental illness as weakness or a defect. My psychiatrist put it in the best way possible for me: “Whitney, think of mental illness as a physical illness. You could live with a broken arm, right? But why would you want to if there was an option to fix it? Taking medication and going to counseling is no different. If it helps you feel your best, why would you choose the harder way?” It’s generally acceptable for someone who takes off work for the flu or surgery. So let’s normalize taking mental health days or putting counseling appointments on calendars. It’s not a sign of a flaw. It’s a sign of strength by knowing what you need.
Now you know my story, generally speaking. I would be lying if I told you I am perfect and happy every single day. I struggle to see the positivity and carry the weight of my anxiety. Oftentimes, I still react to loss or change more dramatically than the “average person” who doesn’t have a chemical imbalance. However, through treatment and reflection I am more aware of myself and have tools to get me to the next day, when things will be better. So please, let’s talk about this issue, help our colleagues, and most importantly, help ourselves. There is light at the end of this dark tunnel, I promise.
To that end, I have made my goals for 2021 to create programming for our organization centered on mental health awareness, normalization, and discussion. This will be done in the form of a CLE series called “All Rise” and a video campaign where prominent attorneys discuss their stories. The first CLE will be March 16, 2021 via Zoom and will focus on Anxiety. There will be another program in May focused on depression. If you have made it to the end of this article, please consider joining our community for discussion on these important topics. It could very well help you or someone you love.