Workplace Wellbeing

4 Ways to Address Mental Health Stigma in the Legal Community

Many lawyers are afraid that asking for help could make them appear weak or unfit for the job. It's time to change that narrative.

Written by
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Nicole Roger, MFT
Director of Clinical Partnerships
Clinically reviewed by
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A male and female lawyer having a conversation with their colleague

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    This article originally appeared on Above The Law

    Stress-related attrition is a byproduct of the legal profession

    Pressed shirts. Steely focus. Perfectly chosen words. 

    To the outside world, attorneys are seen as having it all together. But behind those dialed-in exteriors, many hide crippling mental health issues or work hard to disguise signs of substance abuse. 

    According to a recent study, mental illness and heavy alcohol use is “exceedingly high” among attorneys, with 51.3% of lawyers screening positive for risky drinking, and 34% of women and 25.4% of men engaging in hazardous drinking. Another study shows that 63% think mental health and substance abuse problems are getting worse in the legal profession, up from 55% last year.

    This study also reveals that 71.1% of lawyers surveyed have anxiety and 38.2% are depressed. The number of lawyers with another mental health issue has more than doubled, from 14.6% last year to 31.2% this year. Additionally, nearly 15% know someone in the legal profession who died by suicide in the past two years.

    With numbers like these, it’s no wonder stress-related attrition is a byproduct of the legal profession. A quarter of the women surveyed contemplated leaving their jobs for mental health reasons, compared with 17.4% of men. In particular, women who struggled to balance work and family responsibilities were 4.6 times more likely to contemplate leaving due to mental health issues, stress, or burnout. 

    From an attrition standpoint, it’s not only expensive when attorneys leave a firm, but it can further contribute to the industry’s already notable diversity issues.

    Changing the narrative around asking for help

    The study highlights the urgent need to address mental health issues and reduce the stigma around seeking help. We need to create a culture where it’s okay for attorneys to acknowledge they’re struggling and need support. 

    Many lawyers are afraid that asking for help could make them appear weak or unfit for the job. This fear can be compounded by the expectation that attorneys should be able to handle any challenge. 

    It’s time to change the narrative. Here are four ways to do this. 

    The ripple effect to reduce stigma

    Reducing stigma can begin with just one person talking openly about mental health, stress, or anxiety. It can be as simple as mentioning that they’re taking a break from alcohol, going to therapy, or that they unwind at yoga. 

    It’s amazing how one small drop of vulnerability can start a ripple effect of dialogue and normalization.  

    Providing confidential and safe support

    As a former employee of the State Bar of California, I worked with attorneys dealing with mental health and substance use disorders, and saw how challenging it was for them to get the care they needed. 

    Many were in and out of rehab, putting themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt. Or, they kept their struggles secret, as they unsuccessfully tried to “white knuckle” themselves to sobriety because they were too ashamed to talk to anyone. 

    By the time they reached me, their lives were often falling apart. This is where a program like Spring Health’s can make all the difference, providing fast access to confidential and safe assistance—without fear of judgment or repercussions—before someone reaches that point.

    Meeting employees right where they are

    Spring Health provides expanded access to mental healthcare that’s precise, personal, proven, and 100% confidential. Our clinically validated technology gives each member a personalized care plan, which for some people includes addressing substances. 

    Our alcohol and substance use support program meets members where they are, whether their goals are to get sober or to develop a healthier relationship with alcohol. 

    Breaking the cycle of problematic substance use

    The legal community is rife with hard-driving personalities who are used to achieving success based on their individual grit. Often, the exact personality trait that has gotten them so far in life betrays them when attempting to get sober or drink less, because substance use disorder prevention requires the help of others. 

    Until talking about mental health is normalized, there will be a perceived stigma around simply asking for help or guidance. Unless we provide attorneys with adequate access to mental health and substance use care, the cycle of misuse continues.

    The legal profession is a very social and client-facing business, where it’s normal to have happy hours or take clients out to drinks and booze-filled dinners multiple times a week. 

    The regular course of business can normalize what is often problematic drinking. It also potentially isolates attorneys who have chosen to be sober and possibly alienates them from comfortably participating in events and business opportunities.

    Proactively prioritizing attorney wellbeing

    Even outside of social pressures, there are many factors that might coax an attorney into problematic substance use. 

    More than the average population, attorneys experience higher rates of depression. Some may use substances to escape or unwind, while others feel they need substances to achieve peak performance. Prescription drugs are often seen as okay, but there can be misuse there, too. 

    With the current rate of unmanaged mental health and substance use disorders in the legal profession, law firms must prioritize the wellbeing of their attorneys if they want to retain them over time. We need more attorneys who are willing to have more vulnerable conversations so we can break the stigma and support our peers. 

    Creating a culture where it’s okay to ask for help is crucial, and providing a comprehensive mental health solution helps each person find the appropriate care and avenue that works for them. 

    Sometimes it’s treatment. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a therapist to talk to a couple times a month. 

    It’s okay to ask for help, and we need to make that clear to the legal community as a whole.  

    Learn more about how to level up your law firm’s mental health solution with fast access to comprehensive and effective mental healthcare.

    About the Author
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    Nicole Roger, MFT
    Director of Clinical Partnerships

    Nicole is a Director of Clinical Partnerships at Spring Health, and a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes substance use disorders. She has deep experience working with clients in high stress professions, and worked for the State Bar of California, providing services to attorneys who were struggling with mental health and substance use issues.

    About the clinical reviewer
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