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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Mental health is a D&I issue

Just over a year ago, the Journal of Addiction Medicine published a study indicating that a fifth of lawyers drink in unhealthy ways, and that 28 percent of us meet criteria for depression at some time during our careers.  In addition, at some time, 19 percent of us meet criteria for anxiety disorder, 23 percent for debilitating stress; 11.5 percent reported suicidal thoughts.

This joint project of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation also made recommendations. They call for greater attention from and collaboration with bar, regulatory, and other entities surrounding mental health, substance, and stress issues. These lend support to ongoing LCL efforts. LCL is grateful to the MSBA (and its Life and the Law Committee) and other bar associations and organizations for partnering and collaborating with us. But the stigma remains and stands in the way of lawyers getting help.

Why is this a diversity and inclusion issue? Minnesota lawyers must take elimination of bias CLE courses “designed to educate attorneys to identify and eliminate from the legal profession and from the practice of law biases against persons because of race, gender, economic status, creed, color, religion, national origin, disability, age or sexual orientation” (Rules of the Board of Continuing Legal Education, 2(g)). Mental health issues are potentially disabling conditions; without help, those difficulties can become disabilities. There is a double bind for those already in underrepresented groups, who can sometimes be more reluctant to ask for help because of other actual or perceived implicit or explicit biases.

To lower these barriers, we need to understand stigma. Stigma creates a bias against lawyers who have, or are perceived to have, these conditions. Stigma describes a feeling of disgrace or fear; it sets the bearer apart from others. The person, rather than the condition, is perceived as the problem. The result can be needless suffering, denial of symptoms, and delay in seeking treatment. The devastation that may accompany a mental illness is, in large part, due to the stigma and silence surrounding the illness.

This concerns all of us. Every single lawyer may need accommodation for a temporary or permanent disability. Addiction and mental illness are not a choice. You can reduce your risk, but sometimes it happens anyway. What you do next can be a choice, but stigma is a barrier to making that choice. As lawyers we give advice, so it is difficult to say, “I’m the one who needs advice now. I need help.”

What are our next steps? We need to ‘Make it OK’1 to ask for and offer help. ABA Immediate Past President Paulette Brown spoke at the CoLAP Annual Conference in October. She said, “[W]hile there has been some progress on expanding opportunities for lawyers of all races and ethnicities, women and members of the LGBTQ community, the same cannot be said for those with mental illness or substance use disorders. They are by far the most pervasive and ignored disability issues in our profession…. It must be acceptable for people to ‘come out’ with mental health issues just as it is becoming acceptable to do so in the LGBTQ community.”2

The ABA/Hazelden study has triggered discussions and calls for help. I was at a bar event last spring and the study and its potential impact came up in a discussion. A lawyer in our small group said “the only way it will change is if lawyers are willing to say they asked for help, they’re doing better and it wasn’t held against them.” The lawyer then paused, took a breath and said, “I called LCL, I got help and it hasn’t been held against me. I’m doing okay.” A second lawyer then said
“I called LCL too. I’m doing okay.” All over the state, there are hundreds of lawyers who are doing okay, or better.

Paulette Brown also said, “All must work together to reduce stigma about mental health and substance issues in our profession.” Look around you at your firm or organization, in your bar associations, among your classmates and in your communities. Lawyers with mental health issues are everywhere. Lawyers in recovery are everywhere. Whether that lawyer needs to get help or needs support as they pursue a life in recovery, it is the job of our profession to lower those barriers.

Joan Bibelhausen is executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. LCL provides free and confidential peer and professional support to lawyers, judges, law students, and their immediate family members on any issue that causes stress or distress. There is someone to talk to 24 hours a day and counseling is offered throughout Minnesota.  To learn more or get involved,
go to www.mnlcl.org, call 651-646-5590, or email help@mnlcl.org.

Notes

1 See www.makeitok.org for a Minnesota campaign to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

2 https://abacolap.wordpress.com/2016/11/30/aba-immediate-past-president-paulette-brown-calls-on-the-profession-to-help-laps-reduce-stigma/. See also Anne McDonald, JD, Borrowing an idea from the LGBT Movement, The Journal of The Kansas Bar Association, 2016, at 12.

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