The legal profession is a high-stress, high-pressure profession and there is a worrying rate of anxiety and depression among people who work in it. A 2016 study showed that this starts in law school where students do not get enough support and feel that if they seek treatment for mental health issues it will affect their career.
If you are a lawyer who suffers from a mental health problem, or you have a loved one practising law who is suffering, you could benefit from seeking professional help. We will discuss anxiety and depression in the legal profession, the potential risks they hold including increased risk of substance use disorders, and tips for lawyers dealing with anxiety and depression.
Anxiety and depression are mental health illnesses. Depression is characterized by persistently feeling low and having a lack of motivation while anxiety is characterized by persistent feelings of anxiety and finding it hard to control your worries. Depression affects seven percent of adults in the United States while anxiety affects an estimated nineteen percent of adults. Both conditions affect your daily life, your relationships, your work, and your health.
In 2016, two studies were published which showed high rates of mental health issues and substance use among law students and attorneys. The study with students surveyed 3,300 law students from fifteen law schools and found that seventeen percent suffered from depression, thirty-seven percent had mild to severe anxiety, and six percent had suicidal thoughts in the last year.
The study of attorneys surveyed 13,000 people and found that twenty-eight percent of lawyers surveyed experienced depression, nineteen percent suffered from severe anxiety, and eleven percent had experienced suicidal thoughts in the last year. The problem was more extreme for younger lawyers. In response to these studies, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being was formed. Its aim is to improve the health and well-being of legal professionals.
Law is a competitive and high-pressure industry attracting high achievers. In order to succeed, those who go into this profession are frequently perfectionists. This often means that they are dealing with internal pressures as well as the external pressures from the industry. They may put pressure on themselves to improve and prove themselves to others so that they can stay at the top of their game.
While many jobs are high stakes including those of surgeons, lawyers are also faced with the additional pressure that they are battling others in their profession in order to win cases for their clients, and working in this way can be isolating. They are also exposed to the often difficult life situations of their clients, affecting their mental health directly and also indirectly through the extra pressure they put on themselves to make sure that they help their client as best as possible.
Consistent stress can lead to burnout which often overlaps with depression and other mental health issues. The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from unmanaged chronic workplace stress. The long hours and mental exhaustion common to a job as a lawyer means that many lawyers experience burnout.
There has been stigma or a lack of understanding surrounding mental health issues for as far as history records. Accepting that you are struggling with your mental health can be very difficult due to this. You may think that you are weak and just need to pull yourself together, or that your life is not bad enough to seek professional help. This stigma seems to be particularly intense for those who practice law. The legal profession is a dog-eat-dog environment so showing any sign of perceived weakness is very difficult. Lawyers worry that seeking help will put their career at risk even though many lawyers are experiencing this.
As mentioned, anxiety and depression start before you even become a trained lawyer. Law students often do not get help for mental health issues. This is partly due to the stigma surrounding mental health and the fear that it will prevent them from taking the bar. Law students must take a character of fitness test to take the bar. A study of students showed that sixty-three percent of participants were worried that if they sought help for a mental health illness, they would risk their bar admission and sixty-two percent said they thought seeking help would be a threat to their job or academic status. In addition, forty-three percent said that social stigma discouraged them from seeking help.
Another reason is that law schools do not prepare students for a career in law. While they may have all the academic knowledge to become a lawyer, they are not taught the additional necessary skills which include communication, financial, and management skills. Without this there is a higher chance that young lawyers will feel stressed at their job, leading to anxiety and depression. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being has suggested that law schools must also prepare students by teaching them skills to deal with emotional exhaustion and trauma. There should be a focus on making sure that students feel able to seek help if they have problems, breaking down the culture of shame, stigma, and secrecy.
The consequences of depression and anxiety can be dangerous and even fatal. Both have negative physiological effects increasing the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. They also increase the risk of substance abuse and suicide.
Attorneys and other legal professionals have been identified as a high-risk group for substance use disorders. Lawyers are twice as likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol compared to the general population. Twenty-five percent of law students are at risk for alcoholism and the problem does not decrease when they become trained. A survey of legal professionals found that thirty-six percent had problematic drinking. Surgeons have been recognized as a risk for many years, however, only fifteen percent have problematic drinking.
Women in legal professions are particularly at risk. While the proportion of men in legal professions with problematic drinking is relatively consistent with the general population (thirty-four percent compared with thirty-two), rates in women are much higher. Forty percent of women in legal professions have problematic drinking compared to the national average of nineteen percent. Substance use among lawyers is not new. In 1990, a study showed that eighteen percent of lawyers were problem drinkers compared to the ten percent normal at the time in the US.
Substance abuse can make anxiety and depression worse which creates a vicious cycle. You start to drink or take drugs to reduce the symptoms of anxiety or depression which makes your symptoms worse with time so that you need to drink more or take more drugs to deal with your symptoms.
Lawyers suffer a higher risk of suicide than most professions, ranking fifth for incidence of suicide by profession according to the Dave Nee Foundation. Suicide risk is linked to both mental health issues and substance use disorders. Both anxiety and depression increase the risk of suicide. This is especially true if you suffer from major depression or a severe anxiety disorder. People with alcohol dependence have a sixty to one-hundred-and-twenty times greater risk of suicide.
It is important to be able to recognize warning signs of suicide to prevent the risk for yourself or a loved one. Warning signs include:
Research has shown that regular mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety and depression. Introducing as little as twenty minutes of meditation per day could make a big difference for your mental health. Meditation also helps you to become aware of your emotions and process them healthily. This can help you to understand your needs better so that you can set healthy boundaries in your work life.
Exercise also reduces stress. When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins which trigger the reward pathway. This promotes feelings of well-being. You can even introduce it into your workday by going for a walk on your lunch break. Yoga is meant to be a particularly helpful exercise. Studies have shown that it helps to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. There is evidence that it regulates stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol as well as switching on and off genes that are linked to stress and immune function.
Having a healthy lifestyle through healthy eating and getting enough sleep can also improve your mental and physical health. A balanced diet encourages healthy brain function which can reduce stress. Getting enough sleep is also very important when it comes to managing stress, anxiety, and depression.
Lawyers struggling with anxiety and depression are advised to seek help from a mental health professional as early as possible. Symptoms become worse with time, your brain adapts to a state of anxiety or depression, creating established cycles which get harder to break out of and are easier to fall back into with time. However, even if you have been suffering for many years or decades, professional help can be very beneficial.
Talking about your problems can help to reduce the burden of stigma and shame. The first step to breaking these down is accepting that you have a problem and talking about it openly. You might find this through friends, family members, a therapist, or a support group. Support groups can also help by connecting you with people who are going through similar experiences, helping you to feel less alone.
In the legal community there is increased awareness that lawyers need to have access to professional health. In the late twentieth century, specialized lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) were set up across the country. Since 2014 state-specific LAPs formed in 48 states, and their main role is to reduce barriers to seeking treatment.
According to the 2018 Legal Trends Report, seventy-five percent of lawyers regularly work outside of business hours and thirty-nine per cent of lawyers report that extra work negatively impacts their personal lives. Finding ways to reduce your stress at work could help your mental health. You may think of delegating tasks to others and some lawyers have reported that taking breaks during the workday can help to reduce stress. There is also evidence that multitasking can negatively affect our brains, so setting time to do work one task at a time may help.
Given the high-pressure nature of the legal profession, it may be necessary to take work home at times but keeping this to the minimum will help to reduce stress. Try not to look at your work emails or deal with clients outside of work hours. It is important to make the legal community a safer place to work. Getting help as an individual is a part of this; however, law firms also need to take more responsibility for their employees and create safe environments for work.
Being aware of the signs of anxiety and depression could be useful for knowing when you or a loved one needs help. Depression and anxiety can show very differently depending on the person suffering. However, there are common signs and symptoms based on information from the National Institute of Mental Health.
GIA Miami is a specialized treatment center for mental health and addiction therapy, treating both separately but also co-occurring conditions. GIA Mami is a modern and luxurious center, purpose-built to be the prime environment for treatment and healing. If you are ready to seek treatment or want to find out more about our treatment options, please visit our website or call us on 833-713-0828.
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