On February 15, my friend Ari "Deebo" Johnson committed suicide. His closest friends had no idea that he was struggling with his mental health, let alone that he was suicidal. At a funeral service filled with memories of Deebo’s expansive laugh and easy smile, we were left grappling with unanswerable questions. Why would a man with a life blessed with loving family and friends choose to end it so abruptly? How could it be that a guy like Deebo was suicidal and no one knew?
Unfortunately, the silence that shrouded Deebo’s condition is far too common; our unwillingness to openly discuss mental-health issues conceals the fact that such issues impact many more people in our communities than we realize. The numbers are sobering: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older have a diagnosable mental-health disorder. In comparison, only 11.3 percent of Americans ages 20 and older have diabetes and only 11.5 percent of noninstitutionalized American adults have heart disease. If you look around your office, school or house of worship, many of the people you see likely have one or more mental-health disorders, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders or addiction. And for every person facing a mental-health disorder, there are family members, spouses and friends who suffer alongside him or her. When this collateral impact is considered, it is clear that mental-health disorders affect nearly everyone.
The legal profession is hardly immune to these challenges. In fact, studies have shown that attorneys are more prone to certain mental-health disorders than the general population. According to a Johns Hopkins study from the early 1990s, attorneys are more than three times more likely to be depressed than the average professional. Attorneys also have a greater likelihood of substance abuse; while only about 10 percent of the general population has an addiction to drugs or alcohol, that figure nearly doubles for attorneys. Frighteningly, the suicide rate for attorneys is six times the national average.
Attorneys are probably more susceptible to mental-health disorders because of a combination of stressors inherent in our profession and an institutional instinct to avoid revealing health problems, particularly ones that might be perceived to impact our judgment. The first part of this dangerous cocktail is stress, which may trigger or exacerbate the symptoms of someone who is biologically at risk for mental-health disorders. We often work under the pressure of deadlines, whether external or self-imposed. As a result, we labor long hours, which means less time for family and outside interests. Worse, because advances in technology now allow work to invade every hour of the day, there is rarely an opportunity to completely disconnect from the office. Finally, our matters are often of a high-stakes nature and are heavily scrutinized, and many of us unnecessarily internalize our clients’ troubles as our own.
Notwithstanding these stressors, self-imposed silence about mental-health issues rules the day in our profession. Covering up problems rather than openly addressing them may also aggravate the biological and emotional symptoms of mental-health disorders. During my time in law school and as a practicing attorney at two firms, not once have I heard, or heard of, a discussion about mental health in the legal field. The reason for this reticence is understandable, if troubling. Ours is a client-driven business, and we make our living with our intellect, experience and judgment. Our clients trust us with their most complex problems and, at times, uncomfortable secrets. They expect that we will perform diligently and efficiently and that our conduct and mental state will be above reproach. The fear that risk-averse clients will choose a competitor if they suspect a problem involving their counsel’s mental state is not unjustified. And yet, by accepting these institutional fears, we are complicit in the quiet suffering of our colleagues who may have mental-health disorders.
So what can we do, as people and members of the bar? First, each of us should be as proactive about our mental health as we are about our physical health. Many people religiously work out their bodies, but look askance at the idea of seeking therapy for emotional "exercise." Further, we must accept that mental-health problems, whether biological, emotional or both, should be treated under the care of a physician and/or a licensed therapist — not a shameful weakness that needs to be concealed from view. Put another way, we need to overcome stigma and let light into a dark place.
To this end, many of Deebo’s friends have banded together as "Team Ari," with the purpose of supporting a mental-health organization called Active Minds that works with college students. According to founder Alison Malmon, "the mission of Active Minds is to empower students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking and to change the conversation about mental health." As approximately 1,100 suicides occur each year on college campuses and 75 percent of lifetime cases of mental-health disorders begin by age 24, this work is as important as it is necessary. By removing the stigma of mental-health disorders among young adults now, we can hopefully create a more supportive environment for discussion and treatment of those disorders tomorrow.
Nevertheless, growing up without the benefits of an organization like Active Minds is no excuse for perpetuating outdated perceptions about mental health. We need to move from stigma to understanding and then to acceptance. For attorneys, this means entering a dialogue as to why the rate of mental-health disorders is higher for our profession than for others. We also need to develop skills to manage stress in a healthy way, such as meditating or setting aside designated times to unplug from our jobs.
In addition, we need to make sure our friends and colleagues know that help is available. In Pennsylvania, we have an organization called Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, an independent, nonprofit corporation operated by and for the benefit of Pennsylvania lawyers. The LCL mission is "to help restore the health and competency of Pennsylvania lawyers suffering from various health problems that cause personal and professional impairment." LCL runs a toll-free helpline 24/7, which provides confidential, discreet and free counseling, from both professionals and peers, on topics including addiction, stress, depression and other emotional or mental-health disorders.
On June 9, I will run with 20 of Deebo’s other friends in Philadelphia’s ODDyssey half-marathon as a member of Team Ari. We are running to raise money for Active Minds. We are running to promote awareness about mental-health issues. And, most importantly, we are running to honor the memory of our friend Deebo. Even if you cannot join us on the race path, I hope you will unite with our efforts to participate in a dialogue on mental health. Our collective silence simply costs too much.
To find out more information on Active Minds, visit its website at www.activeminds.org or call 202-332-9595. To find out more information on LCL, visit its website at www.lclpa.org or call the confidential helpline at 888-999-1941. •
Michael J. Newman is an associate in the litigation department of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller. He has broad experience in complex commercial litigation involving contractual disputes and insurance coverage issues. He has counseled clients facing serious allegations such as securities fraud, insider trading and breach of fiduciary duties.