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How to Maintain Resilience When Dealing with a Mental Health Condition

Tish Vincent

How to Maintain Resilience When Dealing with a Mental Health Condition
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Lawyer Assistance Programs provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers and law students who are facing substance use disorders or mental health issues. If you or someone you know is in need of assistance, contact your state or local LAP.

The 2016 research findings from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs (CoLAP) collaboration indicate that 20.6 percent of respondent attorneys “experienced problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations.” (Krill, P., Johnson, M.A., and Albert, L., The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, Journal of Addiction Medicine, Feb. 2, 2016.) The same study found that 28 percent of the respondent attorneys reported depression, 19 percent reported anxiety, and 23 percent reported significant stress.

The findings surprised the researchers because they indicated that these difficulties had a much higher frequency in the first 10 years of practice. The difficulties were more prevalent for junior associates in large firms. The study also looked at possible barriers to seeking professional help for the attorneys who participated. Two barriers were identified: 1) not wanting others to find out they needed help, and 2) concerns regarding privacy or confidentiality.

In the early years of a lawyer’s career, there is more stress, more possibility of developing or exacerbating a diagnosis that needs treatment, and a fear of being found out as needing professional help.

Coping with Mental Health Concerns While Establishing a Law Practice

AAA is an acronym for dealing with adversity in the recovery community. When faced with a challenge, feeling overwhelmed, or feeling hopeless, the following advice is helpful. Rather than rushing to find a solution to a challenge, develop a desire to become aware of the problem from all angles and in as many manifestations as possible. As your awareness increases, the next step is to accept the problem. Acceptance does not mean that you like it or want it; it means you acknowledge to yourself that it is true. As you progress with awareness and acceptance, you arrive at a place where you are capable of taking action to deal with this challenge.

According to George Bonanno, a resilience researcher, “a central element of resilience is perception—how you perceive stress, challenge, and adversity directly influence how you will respond to a stress trigger.” (Davis-Laack, P., Richard, L., Shearon, D., Four Things Resilient Lawyers Do Differently, Law Practice Today, June 14, 2016.)

Establishing a legal career entails a lot of stress. Unfortunately, some individuals will try to deal with their stress through chemical addiction, or they indulge the most destructive symptoms of mental illness. This is a road to disaster.

Depression Is Like Diabetes

New attorneys who live with Type 1 diabetes know that they need a strict healthcare regimen to take care of themselves. They have a healthcare team in place: a primary care physician, an endocrinologist, and a nutritionist. They know what they need to do to take care of their health, and they make that a priority. If the stress of establishing their legal career starts to take a physical toll, they go see the members of their healthcare team.

Attorneys with a known diagnosis of a mental health condition are in a similar situation. They have a condition that needs treatment: therapy, a psychiatric consultation, possible medications, and possible community support. They know they need a plan of action, and they know that they need a healthcare team. If the stress of establishing their legal career starts to take a physical toll, they go see the members of their healthcare team.

Research indicates that attorneys fear being stigmatized by needing help, and they fear that their privacy will not be protected. These attorneys often convince themselves they do not need help because of these fears.

What If You Think You Have a Mental Health Condition?

Maintain a relationship with a primary care physician and be honest with that physician about emotional, mental, and cognitive symptoms that are troubling. Attorneys are particularly in the habit of putting their best foot forward in all social interactions. That is a mistake if you need psychological help. Put your most troubled foot forward, and when your doctor makes recommendations, follow through. If you leave the doctor’s office with a referral to a therapist, call the therapist.

Actual mental health conditions require an accurate diagnosis and an effective treatment plan from an experienced and skillful clinician with whom you feel comfortable. The clinician will help you establish a plan of action for addressing your symptoms and increasing your well-being. There are practices you can engage in that will support your efforts to deal with challenges:

  • Aerobic exercise lowers your cortisol level, which makes you feel more resilient and balanced. 
  • Yoga and mindfulness calm your mind and reduce your stress. 
  • Engaging in activities that you find intrinsically pleasing reduces stress. To identify what activities you find intrinsically pleasing, think of what you liked to do when you were 10 years old. These are things that you probably still like.

When people are developing a mental health condition, they often tend to withdraw from others. Spending time with other people who offer understanding and caring is necessary when struggling. Others can support your efforts to find help and may well have dealt with a similar circumstance and have helpful information or referrals to help you.

How to Maintain Resilience When Dealing with a Mental Health Condition

  • Care for your physical health with good nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, and adequate sleep.
  • Establish and maintain a relationship with a primary care physician.
  • Share your emotional and mental struggles honestly with your primary care physician.
  • Get a full biopsychosocial assessment if difficulties are increasing. If therapy is recommended, go to a therapist and talk openly about your challenges.
  • Implement the action plan developed with your therapist. If community support is recommended, identify groups that address your difficulty. Enjoy yourself!
  • Don’t let the time demands of the practice of law interfere with experiencing pleasure in your life. If you are working in an environment that does not allow time for self-care, start searching for a position that will.
  • Remember! Your state has a Lawyers Assistance Program—a completely confidential resource that will provide an understanding ear and a referral to an effective professional.