Long hours. Tight deadlines. Aggressive co-workers. Fights with opposing counsel. Pressure from partners to bill more. Pressure from clients to bill less. Pressure to spend more time at home. Endless mandatory social gatherings. These are just a few of the stressors that impact lawyers and other legal professionals daily.
It’s no surprise then, that lawyers are suffering from troublingly high rates of depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. Those who work for attorneys — paralegals and other legal professionals — are also suffering. Thus, as we address the top five impacts that practicing law can have on your mental health, we’re speaking to all legal professionals. And, perhaps more importantly, the tips we give at the end of this article for avoiding crisis apply to everyone as well.
At the outset, however, we should remind you that we’re not doctors or mental health professionals. If you believe you’re suffering from any of the conditions set forth in this article, your first call should be to a doctor or therapist.
Mental health consequences of practicing law
Anxiety is your body’s response to mental stress. It can manifest in a variety of ways, such as excessive worrying, panic attacks, muscle spasms, or dizziness.
It’s no surprise that legal professionals — whose stress triggers are constant and innumerable — suffer from anxiety at alarming rates. For example, while the global population experiences anxiety disorders at a rate of approximately 4%, nearly 20% of American lawyers suffer from “severe anxiety.”
Despite the thrills of legal practice, the profession can also be depressing. Losing a case, lack of sleep, and job insecurity can all lead to the hallmark signs of clinical depression — i.e., persistent sadness and loss of interest in things one used to enjoy.
According to some professionals, depression among legal professionals is reaching epidemic proportions, with roughly 28% of attorneys suffering from this condition.
Of course, suicide can be a risk when any mental health condition goes untreated. Legal professionals are not immune from this risk. In fact, lawyers have the 5th highest prevalence of suicide among professional occupations.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please seek immediate help by calling 911 or contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
#4: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Some might be surprised to hear that PTSD is an issue for attorneys, but it can be. In particular, lawyers can be at risk for what’s known as secondary or vicarious trauma. While this condition is most likely to impact lawyers who deal with horrific crimes, it can also affect attorneys who deal with other major life stressors on behalf of their clients — such as bankruptcy, divorce, or child custody.
#5: Substance abuse
It’s no secret that lawyers frequently use alcohol and other drugs. The hard numbers, however, are a little shocking. For example, a recent study found that 36.4% of lawyers and judges are “hazardous drinkers,” as measured by their responses to the “Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test.”
Drinking is not the only problem. That same study revealed that lawyers are using substances like sedatives, opioids, marijuana, and stimulants in relatively high numbers. Moreover, of those lawyers who reported using stimulants over the prior year, over three-quarters of them were using those drugs weekly.
Steps to avoid crisis
#1: Seek professional help
Legal professionals are notoriously bad at (a) admitting weakness, and (b) asking for help. When it comes to your mental health, however, it’s time to let go of those antiquated attitudes. The truth is, you don’t have to wait until you’re in the midst of a crisis to reach out. In fact, the sooner you seek help, the better.
Fortunately, the ABA has compiled an exhaustive list of resources for legal professionals suffering from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other mental health issues. It’s a great starting place if you need information on where to get help.
#2: Explore preventative measures
For as bad as lawyers are at asking for help, they’re just as good at reading and doing research. On the same ABA website referenced above, you can also find an impressive list of resources for maintaining your mental health before you have a problem. There, you’ll find articles on everything from the importance of good sleep to coping with fear and panic. You don’t have to practice every tip for maintaining your mental health but why not find a few that resonate with you and incorporate them into your weekly schedule?
#3: Practice mindfulness
There is a growing body of work suggesting that mindfulness is the new superpower. According to the Mayo Clinic, “[m]indfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.” Some experts are suggesting that mindfulness is a particularly great practice for attorneys. While it may be hard for many of us to quiet the thoughts rushing through our heads, it might be just the thing we need to maintain wellness.
We all know that regular exercise improves our physical health. We should also pay attention to the benefits of exercise on our mental health — especially when it comes to depression and anxiety. And guess what? You don’t have to run a marathon if that’s not your thing. It turns out that you can get the mental benefits of exercise by doing something as simple as gardening or taking short walks.
#5: Walk away
This may be a controversial tip but since it’s one I’ve personally used, I can vouch for it. You don’t have to practice law forever, you know. Law school and the time you’ve spent practicing have actually made you an ideal candidate for many other careers. I’m not suggesting that you take this tip lightly but if you think this career is breaking your soul, perhaps you should consider something else. You don’t have to take my word for it. Many other lawyers have written on the benefits of walking away from legal practice. Read their accounts and consider the option. Who knows? It might be just the recipe for your prolonged mental health.