The Devil’s Advocate

A little while back, I talked about the mental health risk that police and firefighters face, hazards that exist in addition to the physical dangers of they’re job. Similarly, soldiers and veterans die every day from suicide while many more suffer on in silence due to the mental health risks of their profession. But sometimes overlooked is the mental health risk of another profession. Lawyers.

The numbers are deeply concerning, with a recent analysis of the issue finding that lawyers were 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than other professions. A 2016 study found that 28 percent had symptoms of depression, 19 percent had symptoms of anxiety, and 21 percent were “problem drinkers.”

While police, fire, and military personnel are all at risk because of increased physical danger, combined with seeing some truly awful things and highly stressful jobs, attorneys are internally self-destructive it seems. Most attorneys are type-A perfectionists who struggle at never obtaining said perfection. Additionally, many come out of law school with crushing debt, unrealistic expectations of what being a lawyer means, and demanding clients and bosses that they have to satisfy.

All of these sobering realities are very familiar to me as a member of the legal profession. Law school was not good for my mental health. When I graduated I kept expecting someone to tell me it was a mistake, that clearly I wasn’t qualified to call myself a lawyer. And all I thought about when taking the bar exam was all the people I would disappoint if I failed.

Many lawyers don’t seek help because the stigma that doing so might hold them back professionally. Others can’t find the time, crushed under demanding expectations to meet ambitious billable hour goals. Others drink their problems away after the law books are closed.

Lawyers have their own category of jokes, most of which aren’t kind to attorneys, portraying them as little more than snake oil salesmen who care more about money than truth or justice. Such a societal view of attorneys probably doesn’t help.

As a profession we need to do better. We need more mental health services and education available in law schools and as part of new lawyer mentoring programs. We need support and understanding from our fellow attorneys. I’ve heard some suggest that depression should be disqualifying for admittance to the bar, a sentiment that furthers the misguided belief that mental health issues are something to be ashamed of and an idea that will only drive attorney mental health deeper underground. Those who struggle need to push back on that notion and educate our colleagues about what being a lawyer with a mental illness entails.

I’ve seen some of my colleagues start to do this and I couldn’t be more proud to call them my colleagues when I see it happening. But as the statistics show, there is so much more room for improvement. I refer to my mental health struggles as my demons, and sometimes I consider lawyers to be the devil’s advocates, furthering policies that allow those demons to thrive, when in reality we have the ability to shine a light on those demons, bringing those who are suffering out of the darkness. Such an approach would have the benefit of lifting the entire profession up. All we have to do is get started.

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