Let’s talk about lawyer mental health

Mental health is a real issue that bar associations and judicial conferences are only beginning to discuss openly. This emerging enlightenment promises to shed warm light on a once shadowy, taboo topic. A recent example of this movement appeared when Ontario Bar Association President Orlando Da Silva spoke publicly about his personal battles with depression and a related suicide attempt when he became the OBA president in the summer of 2014. My comments at the 2014 ISBA Annual Meeting and in the ISBA Prez Blog in November (“Adapt & Overcome”) featured my own relatively recent experience of discovering significant executive function impairment due to attention deficit disorder (ADD).

The world population has always included mentally impaired people (In the Bible, see Saul in 1 Samuel 16 and Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4). On some level everyone is impaired relative to someone else because we all have different mental capacities and affinities. Some of us function sufficiently well to pass medical board or bar exams without treatment, but we function below potential because of hidden mental hindrances. I have the pleasure of knowing wonderful Indiana lawyers who battle autism, bipolar disorder and other impairments that affect executive mental function significantly. They work beside you, across the courtroom from you and in the state agencies that regulate your clients’ lives and businesses. If you cannot imagine a schizophrenic lawyer functioning effectively in any work environment, consider the example of Elyn Saks, professor of law.

A profession fails in a mission to serve its members and the public if it does not try to detect mental health impairment and offer effective assistance before its impaired members flounder and spin out of control. Some impaired lawyers, like me, muddle through life without realizing that we have an arm tied behind our backs and never think to seek treatment. Too many struggle so intensely with impairment that they seek relief in all the wrong places, such as in gambling, pornography, alcohol and drugs.

If you have practiced law for more than a decade, you can probably think of multiple lawyers that showed signs of mental health impairment, and you may remember some tragic demises. An old friend from my days in the ISBA Young Lawyers Section reportedly died several years ago from a drug overdose. In one of my guardian ad litem appointments as a young lawyer, a Harvard Law School graduate defrauded a woman who was 90 years of age or older to finance the cocaine habit that eventually killed him just after he lost his license to practice law and just before he reached middle age.

So what can you do as a rank and file legal professional? If you are a member of the Indiana bar, you can volunteer to help impaired lawyers and judges find treatment and recovery through the Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program. You can explore ways to help the Indiana State Bar Association Wellness Committee in its constant search for new ideas and strategies to help members improve physical and mental health. If you are interested in advocacy for disabled legal professionals and their clients, the Outreach & Inclusion Subcommittee of the State Bar’s Membership Committee would welcome interest in forming a disability group that could become a new committee or section.

If none of these service opportunities appeals to you, please help carry some water by refraining from making disparaging jokes and remarks about people who are struggling with such disrespectful labels as “nuts,” “crazies” or “psychos.” Those comments perpetuate oppressive stigmas that discourage disabled people from seeking relief from the pain and anguish that stems from secret battles of the mind. Who knows – that mind may be your own.

One comment on “Let’s talk about lawyer mental health

  1. Theresa
    January 8, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

    Thank you for shedding light on this issue.


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