Law is a profession requiring years of diligent study, the need to establish oneself after receiving university degrees and passing appropriate exams for accreditation. It is also one of the most intensely competitive occupations, one that inspires little admiration from the public. Lawyers, it seems, rank incredibly low on the trust scale as well. No wonder mental health lawyer frustrations so often lead to addiction and mental health problems.
What Makes the Stressors of Lawyers Unique?
After studying the law, passing the bar examination and going into practice, lawyers continue to experience many stresses unique to the profession. Other stresses are like those experienced by professionals in other fields, although they take on a different characteristic shared by lawyers alone.
Among the stresses are:
- Trying to simultaneously run a business and law practice
- Work and home priority conflicts
- Coping with stresses by engaging in damaging behaviors that may result in addiction
- Difficult clients
- Striving for perfection
- Competitiveness and lack of collegiality
- Experiencing vicarious trauma from dealing with clients
A lawyer wants to win cases, satisfy clients and earn repeat and referral business. They often work 80-hour work weeks filled with grueling deadlines and can carry with them the lasting imprint of past client cases, including the often painful or traumatic memories involved. That chronic accumulation of stress can be difficult to cope with.
Meanwhile, as proficient communicators skilled in presenting arguments, lawyers are also uniquely adept at deflecting or diverting attention away from themselves. This same proficiency can make it easier to avoid the scrutiny of loved ones or family members regarding a potential substance abuse or mental health problem.
Statistics for This Occupation and Mental Health/Substance Abuse
Although the legal profession is considered a highly stressful occupation, few studies examine the rate of substance abuse and mental health disorders among attorneys. Research published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine studied the prevalence of mental health/substance abuse among 13,000 licensed attorneys. Researchers assessed survey responses for alcohol and drug use, and depression, anxiety and stress symptoms. The 2016 study found that 20 percent of respondents screened positive for harmful, hazardous and potentially alcohol dependent. Furthermore, the lawyers reported significant levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, at 28, 19, and 23 percent, respectively.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease revealed that 11 percent of attorneys in criminal litigation suffered from PTSD. They met the criteria for PTSD symptoms. Also, the study found that secondary traumatic stress was a problem for 34 percent of criminal litigation lawyers.
Lawyers’ Resistance to Seeking Help
Stress and anxiety appear to go with the territory of being a lawyer. But that doesn’t make it easier to seek help for mental health or substance abuse concerns. The Journal of Addiction Medicine study cited two major reasons lawyers don’t seek help: They don’t want others to know they needed help, and confidentiality and privacy concerns.
It is sometimes said that lawyers are “help-averse” individuals. There’s often a mistaken belief that vulnerability equates to weakness—that a stressed lawyer cannot show weakness, for that would convey low self-confidence.
The prevailing perception is that the lawyer must be strong and always in control. They may fear what others think. They don’t want to admit to having problems or a need for therapy, out of fear of what it might do to their reputation.
In fact, the opposite is true. Seeking mental health assistance can help a lawyer become more effective in the long term. Still, the cultural variables that isolate lawyers and prevent many of them from proactively seeking help can be a significant barrier to treatment.
Mental Health Lawyer Problems and Needs
Undoubtedly, the chronic stress attorneys experience makes them more vulnerable to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders can make dealing effectively with either one alone difficult, frustrating and fraught with complications.
Lawyers typically want to appear in control, having a firm grasp on the right solutions, convincing jurors of their client’s innocence and winning verdicts. They want financial, social and emotional success. The practice of law can be a hill too steep to climb for any lawyer experiencing mounting stressors, problems and issues.
Chronic stress left untreated can lead to addiction. What often begins as self-medicating to deal with a temporary problem can escalate to everyday substance use and misuse. The cascade effect often cannot be overcome without professional treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.
Substance Misuse Among Lawyers
Lawyers drink with colleagues and network at events where alcohol is served. They may resort to alcohol to unwind after a tough day in court losing a case or being challenged by clients. Alcohol may bring temporary relief from financial losses or losing out on a partnership. All these take their toll on lawyers.
Alcohol is readily available and socially acceptable, especially among lawyers working in private firms. As the Journal of Addiction Medicine study revealed, attorneys working at private firms experience some of the highest rates of problem drinking. Also, problem drinking is higher for attorneys under the age of 30 (32.3 percent), followed by attorneys between the ages of 31-40 (26.1 percent). More problem drinking occurs among men than women, according to the researchers.
Alcohol, though, isn’t the only substance lawyers may turn to for help cope with their problems and needs. The 2016 study cited these other substances also:
- Stimulants – 79.1%
- Sedatives – 51.3%
- Tobacco – 46.8%
- Marijuana – 36.0%
- Opioids – 21.6%
Steps to Seeking Care for Lawyers and Mental Health
There is no shame in asking for help. Many lawyers do. Following treatment for anxiety or an introduction to stress management techniques during therapy, many lawyers report they’re able to perform at a higher level.
Why it’s Important to Seek Care Among a Group that Understands Your Culture
Lawyers have a culture that is steeped in facts, rules, laws and the interpretation of statutes. As a profession, the law can be a matter of absolutes. The client is deemed innocent or guilty, or a trial may end in a hung jury and mistrial, destined for appeal. In most criminal cases, someone charged with a crime cannot represent themselves. They need an attorney, preferably one with expertise and a successful record of accomplishment winning cases.
Knowing the fate—and sometimes the very life—of a client is in their hands can be a heavy and lonely mental health burden for a lawyer to shoulder. That is another reason why peer support from other lawyers can be vital.
What Routes to Take
Inpatient or outpatient treatment and therapy may be the right next step for a lawyer suffering from a drug or alcohol problem or other mental health condition. The role of a therapist in treating mental health lawyer concerns also cannot be understated. The therapist can help the lawyer challenge and reality-test common thoughts. These include the belief that they’re not good enough or are destined to fail.
ABA Mental Health
Groups like the ABA and other professional associations for lawyers can be great resources to help destigmatize therapy through education and encouragement. State and local bar associations are other important sources of support for getting ABA mental health/substance abuse help. The ABA website links to numerous news coverage and bar journal articles as part of their ABA mental health outreach.
There’s also a directory of Lawyer Assistance Programs the ABA publishes that can help lawyers find assistance for substance abuse and mental health disorders.
Specialized treatment programs geared toward the profession of law are available. They offer lawyers experiencing substance use and mental health problems the best chance of success. These are sometimes called treatment programs for working professionals, law profession treatment programs, specialized assistance programs for lawyers with substance abuse and others.
Mental Health Lawyers Association
The Mental Health Lawyers Association is another organization that supports lawyers’ mental health.
No matter what stage of a career practicing law they may be at, no one is ever totally immune to the stress that goes with the profession. Finding help to deal with an addiction or mental health issue begins with acceptance. Accept the fact that this may be the only realistic way to get past what’s creating negative consequences in your life. Avail yourself of professional resources to find the specialized treatment program you need today. Contact FHE Health today.