Clinical Case and Program Manager
Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program
News stories about mental health and addiction issues in lawyers seem to be increasingly commonplace and yet still surprising. The recently published ABA study (JAM, Feb 2016) highlighting the high incidence of anxiety, depression and substance abuse issues in lawyers and law students helped to broadcast what mental health and substance abuse practitioners have known for far too long: lawyers, judges, and law students are uniquely at risk for mental health and substances abuse issues.
Most legal professionals work in high-stress environments that demand many hours and in which they have a lot to lose, both for themselves and for their clients. Reputation, financial stability, and the ability to practice, among a plethora of other things, are constantly on the line. The world of the legal professional is, more often than not, far from that of the polished, well-dressed, in-control attorney we are so accustomed to seeing on television and in the movies. As the ABA study points out, many of our colleagues are hesitant to seek assistance despite its availability and the well-known need for it. So why is it that such a well-educated and presumably well connected group of people accustomed to solving problems fails to seek help for themselves, and what can we as a profession do about it? The answers to both questions are simpler than you might think.
Q: Why are lawyers, judges and law students unlikely to seek help?
A: They are afraid that seeking help is an admission to weakness, and/or that it will damage their reputations and limit their ability to practice in the future.
Q: What can we as a profession do to help?
A: Step 1: Keep a look out for indicators that could mean there is a problem. An easy way to remember is to follow the MAP: 1) Mood or attitudinal disturbances; 2) Appearance or physical changes; and 3) Productivity and quality of work changes.
These might look like any of the following:
Step 2: Don’t just observe, take action. To repurpose a potentially overly used and often misattributed quote “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In our case “evil” is a disease that disproportionately plagues our profession and “good men” are every lawyer, judge, and law student who notices that a colleague or classmate might be suffering. It’s up to each of us to help each other prevent the loss of reputation, loss of career, and/or loss of life. Most of the tragic events that we hear about lawyers in the news could have been prevented if someone had spoken up about what they had observed.
- Obvious changes in mood
- Work tasks taking longer to complete
- Noticeable need to re-do work
- Withdrawal and/or increased isolation
- Indifference or apathy to self or others
- Changes in appetite and/or weight
- Expressions of worthlessness
- Increased feelings of guilt
- Increased self-blame
- Changes in sleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty making decisions
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Missed deadlines
- Unusual amount of unopened mail
- Unusual amount of unanswered or unreturned calls
- Incivility in the courtroom
- Increased irritability
- Increased worry
- Pain such as headaches, back pain and digestive issues that cannot otherwise be medically explained
- Scent of alcohol
- Unexplained trembling
- Missed deadlines
- Increased arguing
- Increased fear of potential consequences
- Racing thoughts
- Pressured speech
- Slurred speech
- Focus on seemingly irrelevant things
- Increase in goal-directed activity
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Increased risky behavior
Once we notice that something is “a little off” it is critical to take action. This is both the easiest and hardest thing to do. You don’t want to offend someone, but you also know that there may be serious consequences, and perhaps loss of life, if you don’t do anything. Many people dismiss their concerns by telling themselves “it’s none of my business.” It may not be your business, but it IS in your interest to protect clients from attorneys who may not be capable of effectively representing others, it IS in your interest to protect your profession’s reputation for quality service, and it IS in your interest to help your colleagues. A brief conversation or phone call may be a little uncomfortable in the short term, but it is likely to result in a lasting and positive change in the long term. How’s that for risk-benefit analysis.
Option 1: Share your concern with the individual.
Talk to the person who you are concerned about. Do it privately or with one other trusted colleague or friend who is also concerned. Be warm, kind, and express yourself from a place of concern for the individual’s well-being, rather than from a place of judgement. You can say something like: “I have noticed ……. and am concerned. I care about you. What’s been going on? How can I help?” Be specific in your observations. Ask open-ended follow up questions like: “When did you start feeling like that?,” “How often does that happen?,” and “What changes have you noticed recently?”
Sometimes people will admit that your concerns are valid, and sometimes they will just dismiss them. Either scenario is OK because the individual now knows that someone has noticed and cares enough to talk about it. In either scenario you can recommend that he or she call the Lawyers’ Assistance Program (1-800-LAP-1233), a non-profit committed to providing free and confidential mental health and addiction assistance to lawyers, judges, and law students in need. You can also offer to call with the individual, or ask the individual if he/she would like LAP to call them. If none of the above options are feasible, you can confidentially call LAP to express your concern. See Option 2 below.
Option 2: Share your concern with the Lawyers’ Assistance Program.
The Lawyers’ Assistance Program (LAP) is there to confidentially help both you and the individual you are concerned about. If you do not feel comfortable sharing your concerns with the individual, or if you were unable to assist the individual in getting help, you can confidentially contact LAP (1800-LAP-1233 or email@example.com). Simply let LAP know who you are concerned about and why, and whether or not you would like to remain confidential and/or be involved in assisting the individual in getting the help he/she needs. It’s as simple as one phone call or email. Your identity will remain 100% confidential if you choose. There is nothing to lose.
It’s really as simple as that. 1) Observe; and 2) Take action. If you have any questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact LAP – even if just to further inquire confidentially about the process described above. Check out LAP’s website at www.illinoislap.org and call (1-800-LAP-1233) or email them (firstname.lastname@example.org) anytime. No problem or concern is too big or to too small. You have the ability to affect the future of our profession for the better.