Please Speak Up: Lawyers Do Not Need to Suffer in Silence When Battling Depression and Addiction
While it is no secret that there is an ongoing mental health crisis in the United States, it often appears that the legal industry won’t do much to shake its mental health stigma as lawyer depression and alcoholism remains widespread. A recent mental health study conducted by Law.com revealed that an alarming 67% of the more than 3,400 respondents working in the legal field reported anxiety, 35% reported depression, and 44% reported feeling isolated. The percentage of people who contemplated suicide at some point during their professional career was 19%. Additionally, 2.4% of the respondents said they had a drug problem, and 9.4% said they had an issue with alcoholic drinking. As an industry, we have to do more in response to mental health awareness that when left alone can lead to tragedies such as the shocking deaths of prominent attorneys such as Gabe MacConaill and Slade McLaughlin.
How did we get here?
The stigma generally attached to asking for help when it comes to our mental health is not an easy one to overcome and can become a distant hope in an industry where being excessively overworked and utterly devoted to your law firm is applauded and often rewarded. Young lawyers are not immune to these stresses of the legal world and can be seen as more vulnerable since they can start their careers off on the wrong foot prioritizing status over wellness. I just finished law school in May, an experience that was not always pleasant (I remember trying to balance financial and academic stress, a regular sleep schedule, extra-curricular activities, physical and mental health, family life, and something called a social life), and then I was immediately engulfed in bar prep. Now I am about to begin my career in a field with an alarmingly high depression and suicide rates. But I know that with the right support I can find the right balance, succeed and feel well-rounded as I begin my legal journey.
In recent years, and most notably due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conversation about mental health and work-life balance has become more prominent. Junior lawyers are now opening up about the stresses they have dealt with as a result of choosing a career in law, and senior lawyers are beginning to tune into the conversation. But this is just the beginning and it’s important that future lawyers like me speak up when it comes to our mental wellbeing.
Legal workplace reform is necessary and young lawyers are the pioneers.
Even with resources available, why are the depression, anxiety, and substance abuse numbers in the legal field still on the rise? Some commentators say that the issue with support groups is that they are created for the purpose of remedying the problem once it already exists – lawyers turn to these programs for support once they have already felt the effects of the “legal field burnout.” Waiting until after our colleagues are depressed, anxious, or downright miserable to offer them assistance is not the answer.
The benefit of being a young lawyer is that there is time for change – we are not bound to the path of those who came before us. We are also empowered by using our voices to speak out and up for ourselves and others. By asking thoughtful questions during interview processes about firm culture, spending time building relationships with colleagues, empowering coworkers, and mentoring law students and new attorneys, we, as young attorneys, can play a paramount role in changing legal workplace culture for the better. Finding peer networking groups that allow for sharing of mutual challenges and triumphs is critical. Hearing that what we may think is a struggle no one else is facing may just make it that the person next to us speaks up and asks for help.
Luckily, there are resources out there like The Lawyers Depression Project. In 2018, Joseph Milowic, an IP litigation partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York, wrote publicly about his struggle with depression. To help attorneys experiencing the unbearable stress of the legal world, Milowic created an online support group for legal professionals – The Lawyers Depression Project which is just one of more than a hundred lawyer support groups that has emerged to remedy the mental health problem in the legal industry.
I am just starting out on my hopefully long and rewarding legal career. I know that there will be many challenges, many triumphs and I am looking forward to what is to come. There is always light at the end of the tunnel and I hope that together other young future attorneys like me help each speak up because no one should ever battle depression or addiction alone. Here to hoping for our happier, healthier future. Now, let’s get to work.