Combating Mental Illness in the Legal Profession

As the untimely death of Robin Williams demonstrates, mental illness is an important issue that demands an honest discussion. This conversation is surely needed in the legal profession, where study after study indicate that mental illness and its consequences predominant the legal profession more than in the population as a whole. Yet, there are resources available to law students and lawyers that aim to combat mental illness.

Mental illness manifests itself in a variety of forms, including depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and anxiety.

Why is the legal profession so prone to suffer from mental illness?

Although there is not a definitive cause for these illnesses, the highly competitive environment that begins in law school facilitates stress that unfortunately carries over throughout a person’s legal career. Typically the legal profession attracts certain kinds of people – the Type A, result-oriented, perfectionist. As “Type A” personalities, we sacrifice sleep to get the job done, we forgo breaks to read that extra case, and we miss conversations with our family and friends in order to take an emergency meeting with our clients.

What seems as a positive for our career advancement often leads to negative consequences for our mental state. Most of us would not be where we are today if they didn’t possess highly ambitious characteristics. However, problems arise when we cannot balance these characteristics effectively. Further, as we progress in law school and our career, we begin to base our self-esteem on the rollercoaster of successes and failures; we base our self-worth on our profession, and not on who we are as individuals. The need to succeed overtakes us.

What do we do to combat this issue?

To start, we must make managing our mental health a priority. A healthy life has balance.

In addition, on an individual level, a lawyer should seek to:

  • Set realistic goals for yourself and prioritize what is most important for you. It is natural for a successful career to be at the forefront of your goals; but only focusing on your career is a recipe for a mental disaster.
  • Don’t let professional success define your self-worth.
  • Most importantly, ask for help. Strive to surround yourself with people who can give you a stable emotional support system. If you do not feel comfortable asking a friend or family member, seek professional help.

Do not feel ashamed or afraid to seek treatment. You do not have to suffer alone.

For law students, many universities have on-campus services available for law students. If no service is available, a physician can refer you to a program that can meet your mental health needs.

For lawyers, the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted to provide protection from disability discrimination, including mental illness. It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for seeking help. Furthermore, mental health professionals are required to maintain the utmost confidentiality with their patients.

In addition to seeking help from mental health professionals, numerous organizations provide services to assist lawyers who suffer from mental illness. The American Bar Association (“ABA”) has developed the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. The Commission supports all bar associations and lawyer assistance programs that provide education and assistance for mental health problems. The ABA provides a Directory of Lawyer Assistance Programs for each state that provides confidential intervention and referral services. For example, Lawyers’ Assistance Program (“LAP”) is a non-profit organization for Illinois that provides services to lawyers and law students who suffer from mental illness. LAP provides education, information and referral, peer assistance, and intervention to any legal professional who suffers from mental illness. The ABA also provides national resources that address specific mental health issues such as chemical dependency sites, compulsive gambling, eating disorders, family support, and mental health sites. Additionally, it provides hotlines to address specific problems you are dealing with.

These are just a handful of resources available to individuals in the legal profession. Undoubtedly, there are many more institutions and people ready, willing, and able to help. While we in the legal profession are used to helping those who reach out to us, when it comes to our own mental health, we must also remember that, to most be successful, we have to be willing to reach out to others when in need.

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