Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Wellness in the Legal Profession: Change is Necessary

Posted on Categories Health Care, Legal Education, Legal Profession, Public, Student Contributor

Symbol of a heart with a jagged line representing an EKG printout superimposed over it, in order to represent the concept of "wellbeing"Last week, the American Bar Association (“ABA”) designated and celebrated October 10th, 2018 as National Mental Health Day for Law Schools.[1] This date coincided with the World Mental Health Day.[2] The ABA’s National Mental Health Day for Law Schools serves as a vital reminder that the legal profession is not immune from mental health problems. In fact, the numbers themselves highlight just how important discussing and tackling mental health and wellness are to both law schools and the legal profession in general. Both law students and lawyers suffer in large numbers from mental illness and substance abuse. Therefore, it is important to address these concerns and to help both law students and attorneys live a life that focuses on their wellbeing.

Statistics on Attorneys

In comparison to other professions, lawyers themselves experience higher rates of mental health issues and substance abuse. Attorneys are the most frequently depressed occupational group in the United States, and they are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression in comparison to non-lawyers.[3] In a study of roughly 13,000 practicing attorneys conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, 28% of the attorneys reported experiencing depression, 23% reported experiencing stress, and 19% reported experiencing anxiety.[4] Of these participants, 21% are qualified as problem drinkers, and they “experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise generally consistent with alcohol use disorders at a rate much higher than other populations.”[5]

This same study found that younger attorneys, rather than older attorneys, are at a greater risk for experiencing these issues. According to the study, attorneys under the age of 30 are at the highest risk of engaging in problematic drinking.[6] More specifically, the study found that younger attorneys who are in the first ten years of their practice and work in a private firm are more likely to experience mental health problems and substance abuse in comparisons to other attorneys.[7] These statistic highlight the fact that the legal work environmental itself increases the chance that an individual, especially a younger individual, will suffer from mental health issues or substance abuse.

Statistics on Law Students

These mental health concerns and substance use issues are not solely limited to practicing attorneys. Rather, law schools themselves also create an environment that triggers or exacerbates mental health issues. Before entering law school, individuals have a psychological profile similar to that of the general public, but after law school, 20% to 40% of law students have a psychological dysfunction.[8]

In 2014, the ABA Journal published a Survey of Law Student Well-Being where more than 11,000 law students were surveyed regarding their alcohol and drug use and their experiences with mental health issues.[9] Non-surprisingly, the survey found that a significant number of law students experience mental health issues or substance abuse issues. Specifically, 17% of law students have depression while 23% have mild to moderate anxiety and 14% have severe anxiety.[10] Of the participants surveyed, 43% reported binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more drinks in a row for women) at least once in the prior 30 days while 22% reported binge drinking two or more times in the prior two weeks.[11]

Perhaps most disheartening about this study is the results regarding law students’ attitudes toward getting professional help to aid them in managing these issues. Of the 43% of respondents who thought they needed help for their emotional or mental health, less than half of them sought out or received any form of counseling from a health professional.[12] Only 4% ever received any help from a professional for alcohol or drug use, a very low number considering the amount of law students who likely suffer from substance abuse.[13] Although a variety of factors discouraged law students from not seeking professional help, the main factors include potential threat to bar admission (63%), potential threat to job or academic status (62%), social stigma (43%), and belief that they could handle the problem themselves (39%).[14] Therefore, although the law students suffer from a variety of mental health and substance abuse issues, they are not likely to seek any professional help, which further perpetuates the issue and increases the likelihood that these law students will become attorneys with similar problems.

Change is Necessary

Consequently, both law students and attorneys suffer from high rates of substance abuse and mental health concerns, and it is vital that actions be taken to create environments conducive to addressing these issues. Creating an environmental that fosters positive change can help lawyers thrive in their emotional, social, and physical wellbeing.

There are a variety of steps that law schools, law firms, and other legal shareholders can take to help improve the environment for law students and attorneys.[15] For example, law schools and firms can expand on educational outreach. This can help provide greater awareness of the available resources, such as the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program. In addition, decreasing the stigma associated with mental health and wellness issues can also benefit a lawyer’s wellbeing. Law schools and law firm can help destigmatize this taboo topic by discussing these important mental health concerns, promoting all available resources, and encouraging people to reach out if necessary. Finally, employers, law schools, the judiciary, or even regulators can create organizational infrastructures geared toward promoting a lawyer’s wellbeing. This can help endorse the idea that a lawyer’s emotional and physical wellbeing is an important part of practicing law and being a competent attorney.[16]

Overall, it is vital that law schools, law firms, the judiciary, bar associations, and other legal shareholders work together to help foster a legal environment dedicated to addressing the wellbeing needs of law students and attorneys. Although the numbers are high and the concerns are widespread, by working together and addressing the mental health issues through a variety of mechanisms and techniques, there can hopefully be some positive change in the legal profession regarding mental health and a lawyer’s wellbeing.

[1] ABA, National Mental Health Day for Law Schools–October 10, 2018, (last visited Oct. 16, 2018), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/events_cle/mental_health_day/.
[2] World Health Organization, World Mental Health Day–10 October, (last visited Oct. 16, 2018), http://www.who.int/mental_health/world-mental-health-day/en/.
[3] Dave Nee Foundation, Lawyers & Depression (last visited on Oct. 16, 2018), http://www.daveneefoundation.org/scholarship/lawyers-and-depression/.
[4] P. R. Krill et. al., The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. Addiction Med. 46, 49, 51 (2016).
[5] Id. at 52.
[6] Id.
[7] P. R. Krill et. al., The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. Addiction Med. 46 (2016).
[8] Dave Nee Foundation, Lawyers & Depression (last visited on Oct. 16, 2018), http://www.daveneefoundation.org/scholarship/lawyers-and-depression/.
[9] Jerome M. Organ, et. al. Helping Law Students Get The Help They Need: An Analysis of Data Regarding Law Student’s reluctance to Seek Help and Policy Recommendations for a Variety of Stakeholders, The Bar Examiner (Dec. 2015).
[10] Id. at 9.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 10.
[13] Id.
[14] Id. at 10–11.
[15] For an in depth exploration on the types of steps available for improving a lawyer’s wellbeing, please see National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, (Aug. 2017), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf.
[16] See id.

Above Image: By Libraries Taskforce – Icon representing wellbeing, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70875028

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