Lawyers Need to Talk About Mental Health

  • The prevalence of mental health struggles among lawyers is well documented, as is the stigma
  • Lawyers fear that they will be viewed as weak, knocked off the advancement track, and possibly fired if they disclose mental health issues and need to take time to get help
  • Firms are becoming more open and helpful in the face of mental illness, but only a few are making real—very slow—changes

Decades of research have gone into documenting the prevalence of mental health struggles too many lawyers end up contending with, as well as the consequences of grappling with these struggles.

No matter how many studies are done or articles are written, however, there’s still a strong stigma against openly discussing mental health in the legal world.

Why the Stigma Exists

The lawyer life can be a treacherous, contentious, competitive, stress-filled maze of 80-hour (or longer) work weeks. Lawyers working in fast-paced Big Law firms, especially, quickly learn not to show one ounce of weakness. What could be weaker than needing help with mental health, not being able to “hack it?” This unhealthy attitude, as wrong and counterproductive as it is, is common. Our culture generally harbors many misconceptions about mental illness which are only amplified in the high-stakes legal world.

Lawyers often believe—and the work environment enforces this perception—that one must always have every aspect of a situation under control to be successful. It becomes apparent that admitting there is a problem will be looked down upon and may affect advancement opportunities. What will the partners think if they find out? Which colleagues will gossip behind your back and step in to take on projects that will be assumed too taxing for you? Depending on the atmosphere at your firm these fears may or may not be valid, but they work to keep lawyers suffering in silence, afraid to ask for help or even take some time off to work on mental health issues.

What Happens When Someone Needs Help—and What Should Happen

Attorneys who begin to have difficulties with their mental health have historically been encouraged to remain silent, suck it up, and tough it out. Lawyers who gingerly attempt to bring the subject up with their superiors have reported having the subject quickly changed and ignored. Those who are open about mental health struggles can end up being sidelined from projects and having their interactions with clients curtailed; firms fear that mentally ill lawyers could end up being a liability.

There used to be only three outcomes for lawyers suffering from mental illness: leave the firm, go on disability, or get fired. Have you seen these scenarios play out at your own firm?

These are generally not the only options for lawyers who have physical ailments, though—when someone must be out for surgery or illness, the rest of their team simply picks up the slack. People with mental illnesses need to be given the same chance to get treatment and the same respectful consideration as those with physical illnesses.

Change is Slowly Taking Place

A few progressive firms have taken steps to make wellness—both mental and physical—an office priority. A new openness about stress and its effects is being encouraged in an effort to lower the stigma of needing help. Younger lawyers, especially, are driving the push to eventually eradicate the expectation that sacrificing health is a necessary part of the job.

It is important that firms don’t simply add one program, hold a yearly seminar, and consider the mental health box checked. Structural changes, along with comprehensive, results-based programs, are what is needed. Most firms are simply not set up to encourage a healthy work/life balance, and exacerbate the issues that would be easier to be honest about and treat in a less stressful, judgmental environment.

On a one-on-one level, lawyers need to be aware of the messages they are sending and receiving about stress management and mental health in general. Do you gossip about your colleague “losing it” or “being off his medication” if he seems to be struggling or more stressed than usual? Are you a person other lawyers can speak honestly with and admit mental health struggles to? Would you be willing to help your office destigmatize mental illness by disclosing your own struggles in a matter-of-fact manner? Change begins with each of us.