In recent years, research has emerged documenting the high rates of substance use and mental health disorders within the law profession. There are a number of reasons that cause increased anxiety and substance abuse within the law profession, including high stress, low levels of autonomy, and a degree of pessimism required to be prepared for all possibilities.
This applies to both lawyers and law students, so it is clear the issue needs to be addressed while people are in law school. A culture of acceptance and inclusivity should be fostered.
There are a number of different causes of increased anxiety and substance abuse among attorneys. Some attorneys already struggle with mental illness which is intensified by the high-stress, fast-paced lifestyle and demands of working in law or studying law.
The competitive, ambitious, and driven world of law can mean many attorneys feel anxious and hesitant to seek help for fear of seeming weak. Mental health issues among the population as a whole are rising, intensified by the stress and isolation of the COVID-19 crisis, climate catastrophes, and rising inflation. These issues compound problems that people are already struggling with and can take a toll on the well-being of the whole population.
The legal system in the United States is complex and most lawyers suffer from high levels of stress. Despite it being a profession that comes with the benefits of a good income, high respect, and social capital, many lawyers feel unsupported, struggling with sleep deprivation, high blood pressure, and alcohol abuse.
The legal profession often rewards a level of work that is incredibly difficult to maintain. There is a culture that seems to view being overwhelmed and overworked as a badge of honor. This is seen as a core cause of lawyer anxiety and often begins in law schools.
While increased levels of stress, mental illness, and problematic drinking patterns can affect anyone in the legal profession, research has shown females to be particularly at risk. There is a significant gender disparity, with female attorneys experiencing more mental distress, greater problems managing work/family commitment conflict, and increased rates of overcommitment, yet face lower prospects of promotion than their male counterparts.
Mental health issues among lawyers are increasingly prevalent, as are substance abuse and addiction. Most of the problems that lawyers face are stress-related.
A 2020 study found that “Roughly half of practicing attorneys are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, with approximately 30% of those falling in the mild range and nearly 20% falling in the moderate to severe range.”
These mental health problems often start when they are law students, where a culture of high stress and competitiveness is fostered.
Learning to manage anxiety and depression can support lawyer well-being and stop people from developing severe anxiety symptoms and reaching breaking point. There have been calls to educate lawyers and law students about the dangers of stress and the tools to implement in daily life to help with reducing anxiety and improving mental state.
Mindfulness involves bringing your attention into the present moment, using techniques like meditation, breathing, and yoga. Having a daily mindfulness practice can help you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings so that instead of becoming overwhelmed by them, you are better able to manage them and understand your own experience. There are a variety of free guided meditations online to help you develop your own practice.
Taking part in regular physical exercise can also help alleviate stress and increase a positive mindset. Constant stress can cause muscle tension and result in chronic pain. Regular exercise can reduce anxiety and boost mood as it promotes the production of dopamine and other endorphins.
Self-care can take a number of forms. Lawyers working long hours may find it difficult to put time aside for themselves and focus on their health and well-being in addition to their career or profession. When dealing with clients having complex cases and needs, it can be difficult to focus on your own life and make time for self-care strategies that reduce stress. However, making time for yourself will reduce symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Research has shown that workplace stress can affect sleep. It can often be difficult to 'switch off' and remain present in situations, whether that is at work with colleagues, in law school, or at home with family or friends.
High levels of stress for prolonged periods of time can cause excessive levels of cortisol in the blood. Increased cortisol can disrupt sleep and is one of the reasons overworked solicitors can experience difficulty sleeping and feel unrefreshed or 'groggy' in the morning. This can quickly turn into a negative cycle of sleep deprivation with which some may struggle.
Some law professors or those working in competitive law firms may seem hesitant to seek help for fear of judgment or seeming weak. Well-being affects everything, including work, and putting off seeking help from a medical professional can affect your ability to perform legal work in the long term. For some, admitting that they are suffering and require treatment for anxiety or depression is incredibly challenging, yet ultimately ignoring their problems will be more challenging in the long-run.
Research has found that one of the most significant barriers to seeking help from a mental health professional or addiction professional is the culture that starts in law school and runs through the profession causing lawyers to become conditioned to think that it is unacceptable to be vulnerable and show weakness. This is often seen as a requirement for success in a law firm, yet hinders success and well-being for many lawyers.
While individual efforts to create healthy boundaries, prioritize self-care, and maintain all-round well-being are important, there also needs to be a shift in law firm culture that sees lawyer well-being as central to a productive and healthy work environment. Law firms, law schools, bar associations, professional liability carriers, and lawyer assistance programs must all take part in the shift towards making a career in law more sustainable for lawyers.
If you are a lawyer and are struggling with mental health problems, substance abuse, mental illness, or you know a lawyer whom you think requires help, it is important to know that you are not alone.
There is a range of treatment approaches for law students or practicing lawyers including specially designed treatment plans that consider your medical history, personal circumstances, family situation, and work-life.
Whether you are on medication, are already diagnosed with an illness such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or have only recently begun to realize the effect of stress on your life and mental health, there is a treatment program just right for you.
At GIA Miami, our individualized mental health and addiction programs are evidence-based and expert-led from beginning to end, offering you unrivaled support on your path to mental well-being. Every one of our treatment programs is specially designed for your needs and goals.
We understand that the attorney life-style is often fast-paced and there is little time to relax. Our modern, luxurious center offers a spacious and stress-free environment for your treatment experience, giving you the time and space needed to begin your recovery journey.
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