Mental Health and the Legal Profession

Image courtesy of Routledge

Before we welcome April, I want to highlight that May is National Mental Health Awareness Month.

Lawyers have one of the highest incidence rates of substance abuse of all white collar professions. I heard this 12 years ago as I sat in my first-year law student orientation. We were warned of the pressures of law school and law practice and how many lawyers cope by consuming alcohol. The assistant dean of students told us that alcohol abuse is a thing that could happen and listed some websites and organizations that provided support resources. We talked about it, but we didn’t really talk about it.

I never heard the topic discussed at any other point during my time at the law school. I cannot remember whether our orientation included introducing my cohort to the university’s mental health support services, although, it makes sense that we would have at least been directed to the counseling services website. What I know for sure, however, is that it was not until I had an emotional breakdown in my mentor’s office that I heard anything else about mental health services. My mentor was a Black women teaching at a predominantly white law school. Because of her intersecting identities, emotional labor like what she provided me was already imposed on her as a function of racialized and gendered inequality structures in the legal field and at the law school.  I am grateful that she recognized that I was in a state of crisis, listened to me, and supported me in seeking help. However, one person should not be solely responsible for helping students.

I’m not alone. As lawyers, we don’t talk about our battles with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or psychosis. It makes sense. We don’t talk about it as a society either. We avoid discussing mental health issues because we risk being seen as weak and unable to do our jobs, whatever the job. Instead, we suffer in silence. For too many of us, the suffering becomes unbearable and we can’t see a way out. No one talks about their experiences with feeling like nothing they do will be good enough, that they will never be good enough, that they should not be “here” in the first place. No one talks about not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, of having trouble sleeping, of not eating or of over-eating, of being in a constant state of lethargy, of not finding joy in any aspect of life, including work and family. There’s no discussion of debilitating anxiety, obsession and compulsion, medications, psychiatrists, therapists, support groups, or 12-step programs. There is no admission of guilt and shame over having negative thoughts, unrealistic perfectionist ideals, and “failing” because you don’t realize that perfection is unattainable.

You are not alone, yet, illnesses like depression make you believe you are. Isolation is a cruel joke. You’re depressed because you feel alone and unworthy of love, praise, support, and opportunity. This feeling of loneliness only amplifies as a symptom of depression. It’s a self-sustaining feedback loop.

We don’t talk about it. Invisible disabilities like mental illness typically are not included in diversity and inclusion trainings or formal mentoring programs. Do law students and new lawyers know that if they have a documented diagnosed disability, like depression or anxiety, there are myriad accommodations that would help them complete coursework and finish legal assignments for the partners they work with? I had a friend who was taking the bar exam about four years ago tell me that she gets three days to complete the exam rather than the usual two. She asked me whether she should use her disability accommodation. I had no idea such a thing existed. I told her that if the accommodation is available to her and she has been medically diagnosed with a disability that requires such an accommodation, then absolutely she should take it. There is no shame in using the resources that help you function as you would, were it not for your disability.

As a PhD student who thrived in law school, practiced law for eight years, and was offered and created opportunities that allow me to do what I want with my life, I still struggle with accepting that I live with invisible mental illness and that I require certain accommodations to do the work and to be the person I have known myself to be. Everyday, I have to decide whether to be courageous enough to move past my fear of failure, past the shame of not being perfect, past the guilt of receiving disability accommodations that I know are necessary.

There are so many people like me: high functioning over-achievers struggling with conditions that no one sees and when they do see, they minimize or insult. I know that there are also empathic and encouraging responses. I am lucky to regularly receive them from my partner, friends, and select faculty. Unfortunately, this positivity is often secreted away, out of plain view, so others do  not have the privilege of knowing that this experience is even possible.

These are just a few reasons why we have to continue working to raise awareness about mental health, as a society and as a profession.

*This is the first part of a three-part series about mental health awareness.