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Photo of business hands holding blackboard and writing MENTAL HEALTH diagram
Photo of business hands holding blackboard and writing MENTAL HEALTH diagram

Taking care of our mental health so we can help others

May is Mental Health Month and there is no better time to remind lawyers and judges about the importance of self-care to reduce our risk for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

We all know this is a stressful profession, and the challenges of as global pandemic have increased that stress exponentially for many of us. Triggers and causes include the intensity of the business of law, the fact that we help people when they are experiencing this worst thing that ever happened to them, and the constant challenge of our adversarial system. Now we are juggling remote work and meetings, concerns about our health, and possible challenges to the survival of our workplaces and our clients’ needs for our services. In our profession we tend to be reactive (we don’t have work until someone else has a problem) but in the case of mental health, we must be proactive.

Lawyers are already at risk. As a profession we experience major depression and substance use disorder at rates significantly higher than the population as a whole. We have a higher rate of suicide. We also experience greater rates of anxiety, chronic stress and divorce. Is this because we are afraid to be vulnerable and ask for help?

As we face these new challenges, they are bombarding us in ways we never expected. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being identified six elements of well-being: occupational, intellectual, spiritual, physical, social, and emotional, and I would add cultural. The balance we have kept is upended as different facets of who we are demand priority. We may be required to attend to health, financial and career challenges that were not a concern just weeks ago.

Our stress may trigger depression, anxiety, or other illnesses, and may lead to a sense of helplessness, increasing anxiety and the inability to complete even mundane tasks. We may feel shame because lawyers aren’t supposed to feel helpless. If we have a particularly intense period, we may perceive that as a new normal, rather than a sprint from which we must recover. Drinking becomes a way to evade dealing with our stress until the drinking itself becomes the problem.

As lawyers we endeavor to reduce the likelihood that opposing counsel will exploit the vulnerabilities of our case, and we fear that showing our own vulnerabilities will put a target on our backs.  We’re paid to solve the problems of others and isolate because we feel we should be able to solve our problems ourselves.

No one needs to do this alone. Many tools, resources, and strategies help our colleagues across the profession enhance their well-being every day. Minnesota’s Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers offers free and confidential peer and professional support to lawyers, judges, law students and their immediate family members on any issue that causes stress or distress. This includes up to four free counseling sessions statewide, peer support, groups, and individual resources. LCL has developed COVID-19 specific resources to help our profession cope in these troubling times and any other. Services are available 24 hours a day. www.mnlcl.org.

Joan Bibelhausen is executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. She is committed to helping legal professionals and their organizations thrive in a stressful profession.

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About Joan Bibelhausen

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