Throughout the time I spent running a treatment program for attorneys, judges and law students struggling with addiction, I noticed an unmistakable pattern: These individuals tended, on average, to have kept their problems hidden longer than many of the nonlawyer patients the center treated. Unfortunately, their resulting addictions and psychological distress were often more advanced, and the collateral damage to their lives more substantial than it would have otherwise been had they sought help sooner.
Why? Sometimes it was because they were too steeped in denial, or arrogance, to acknowledge they had a problem. Sometimes it was because they hadn’t had time to seek help. Most of the time, however, it was because they had been too afraid to let anyone know they were struggling. Law can be an especially unforgiving place when it comes to one’s reputation and image, and an inhospitable terrain for much of the human condition, including vulnerability. Too often, that dynamic keeps sick people from getting well.
My firsthand observations of this phenomenon aside, we also know from current research that the most common barriers between addicted and depressed lawyers and the help they might need are fears that others will find out, and general concerns about privacy and confidentiality. Research on law students demonstrates a similar reluctance to seek help that is tied to fears about the possible impact on one’s career.
So, is it really that important to make lawyers and law students less afraid to seek help? Unequivocally, yes. Due to the large number who are either struggling or at risk, we must act to change the profession’s culture of incentivized silence around addiction and mental health. Our most recent data suggests that between 21 and 36 percent of currently practicing lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, and high numbers are also experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress (28, 19 and 23 percent, respectively). Younger lawyers are the most troubled and at-risk group, but no age bracket or experience level within the profession is immune from the toll of unhealthy lifestyles, self-medication and psychological distress.
Recognizing that many of our colleagues battle their demons alone, and that for some that battle becomes tragic and unwinnable, I am working with the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs to launch a profession-wide anti-stigma campaign aimed at breaking down some of the nonsensical yet powerful attitudes about addiction and mental health that have prevailed in our industry for too long. It’s time for us, as a profession, to turn the page on old beliefs and stereotypes about what it means to be a good lawyer, judge or law student. It’s time to cross-examine our own thinking and get realistic about problems that are widespread, preventable and beatable. It’s time to change, and we need your help to make that happen.
Research shows that the most effective way to reduce stigma is through direct contact with someone who has personally experienced a relevant disorder. To that end, while we’re not organizing a roadshow of inspirational speakers coming soon to a law firm near you, we are seeking to do the next best thing. By compiling a series of powerful testimonials from legal professionals who have bravely overcome substance use and mental health disorders to find thriving and fulfillment on the other side, and turning those testimonials into online videos that can be shared far and wide, this anti-stigma campaign will serve the dual purpose of both educating and advocating.
To produce these videos with the level of quality they merit, we need funds. We need your support, in any amount you are comfortable giving. If you’ve been in or around the legal profession for any meaningful amount of time, chances are you’ve known or observed someone who experienced problems with their substance use or mental health. Donate in support of them. Or, maybe it was you who struggled. Donate in support of yourself. Or, maybe you’re just someone who likes to support good causes and wants to see the profession move in a more positive direction. Donate on behalf of good people. Whatever the reason, I encourage you to help us make this initiative a success.
By educating those who may not understand what recovery from addiction and mental health problems can look like, and by offering hope to those who may be suffering alone in isolation and fear, these videos can and will be a powerful tool to combat the unhelpful thinking that tends to surround addiction and mental health problems in the legal profession.
To learn more about this campaign and make your donation today, please click here.
Thanks, and I look forward to seeing you back here soon!
Patrick R. Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information.