Practice Pointers – Investing in Your Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I couldn’t let these 31 days go by without addressing mental health and the practice of law. So here I am anxiously asking myself what I want to say at 8:41 pm on Sunday, May 31. (Full credit goes to my generalized anxiety disorder for this latest installment of “Natasha psyched herself out and procrastinated yet again even though she knows she shouldn’t.”)

It would be the understatement of the year to say that lawyers suffer from a mental health and substance abuse epidemic.

ALM’s most recent Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey found that 31.2% of more than 3200 law firm respondents felt they were depressed, 64% felt they had anxiety, 10.1% felt they had an alcohol problem, and 2.8% felt they had a drug problem. When asked whether their work environment contributed to those mental health issues, 73% said yes. And 74% said yes when asked if the profession has had a negative effect on their mental health over time.

You can’t ignore those numbers, and I think it’s safe to assume some of you reading this would’ve answered yes to at least one of those survey questions. I would’ve.

I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder during my 2L year. I finally saw a therapist and psychiatrist after binge-drinking blackout episode #187. My childhood best friend had been visiting for the weekend, and she sat my very hungover ass down after another embarrassing alcohol-infused night to tell me that she thought I might have anxiety and should see a doctor. She was in med school at the time and knows me incredibly well so when she said that, I took it seriously. My then boyfriend – also in med school – agreed, so I obliged and made an appointment with Duke’s Counseling & Psychological Services.

Turns out I had been doing what many a lawyer has done – self-medicating. I’m one of the lucky ones though. I had someone support me and convince me to seek help. I’ve been on medication ever since, and man, has my life improved since that first visit with a mental health professional. Let’s just say there were far fewer drunken stupor nights my 3L year.

I often wonder what would’ve happened if someone close to me hadn’t recognized that I could have an underlying mental health issue and should seek help. When would I have realized that something wasn’t right? How many more panic attacks or blackouts would it have taken? And how much harder would the practice of law have been?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I’m so relieved we’ve started normalizing mental health discussions in the legal community – especially in the COVID-19 era. I don’t remember there being any mental health programming when I was in law school, but hopefully that’s changed almost a decade later. There’s certainly been progress since then. Some states have eliminated or have considered eliminating mental health question(s) from bar examination character and fitness applications. Many firms have adopted wellness programs (s/o to Kirkland & Ellis for hiring a Firmwide Director of Wellbeing to lead its Wellbeing Program), and the first week of this month marked the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s first annual Lawyer Well-Being Week. Even Thrive Global now has a special section on Overcoming Lawyer Burnout.

I’m not going to try and tell you how to invest in your mental health. But I hope you do so, in whatever way feels right to you. The point of this post is to acknowledge the mental health epidemic facing lawyers, share my story, and hopefully inspire someone else to be more intentional about investing in their mental health.

That said, I’ll end this with a few lawyer-specific mental health resources I recently came across and found helpful – including COVID-19 mental health resources. If anyone has other resources to add, please let me know in the comments! (for Georgia State Bar members)

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