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August 05, 2023

Better mental health? What legal profession needs most to heal

The most important factor in improving lawyers’ mental health is eliminating the stigma associated with seeking mental health assistance, speakers said at the 2023 American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Denver.

“We have to get the word out that diagnoses and having problems are not the problem,” said Janet P. Van Cuyk, deputy executive director of the Virginia State Bar in Richmond, Virginia.

“It is OK to have a diagnosis,” Van Cuyk said. “It is OK to have had a history of substance use, and it’s OK to have some cognitive impairments if you are working through it,” she said. “What is not OK, is what we have in the profession,” which is the fear that “I might lose my job if someone finds out about this.’”

Moderator Richard Rivera of Smith Gambrell Russell in Jacksonville, Florida, agreed. “Changing mindsets is important to eliminating stigmas in the profession,” he said. “Destigmatization is the first step, and it’s changing the mindset of where we are and what we do.” Small changes such as offering nonalcoholic beverages at open bars or hosting a 5K run at professional conferences can remove the stigma and help promote healthy behaviors, he said.

Van Cuyk and Rivera were part of a panel called  “The ‘Resilient Advocate:’ Practicing Self-Care and Prioritizing Well-Being as Members of the Legal Profession” that addressed the causes and possible solutions to the mental health crisis in the field.

“If you have something that you are struggling with and you are getting appropriate help and it’s not materially impairing your ability to practice law, your honesty, trustworthiness and fitness, then a diagnosis is what it is,” Van Cuyk said. “It has nothing to do with who I am today and how I am as a professional and nothing to do with my ability to practice law and my ethical responsibilities. It is not the diagnosis, it is the behaviors,” she said. “The bar only looks at the behaviors,” such as missing deadlines, keeping confidentiality, taking or keeping representation when you shouldn’t and other routine tasks.

Establishing preventative measures also is essential to supporting health and wellness, Van Cuyk said. “Making sure everyone knows what the signs and symptoms are, making sure everyone knows where their resources are, both within your organization and outside your organization” is vital.

But the most effective mental health support may be the simplest — encouraging colleagues who may be struggling, she said. “What we don’t have [in the profession] is asking ‘how are you doing today?’ Asking that second question, having that second conversation and following back up if someone’s having a problem,” Van Cuyk said.

Panelist Jeena JeeHyun Cho, a lawyer, author, mindfulness and meditation consultant in Sacramento, California, said identity-based trauma — whether based on race, sex, religious affiliation or another identity — and “vicarious trauma” — seeing it happen to others — aren’t discussed enough. “The consequences of doing the work that we do and the impact that it has” can be disorienting, she said. “How the cases that we handle impact us and our mental health, emotional health and spiritual health are really important to talk about.”

Dr. Maya Prabhu, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, acknowledged that the mental health system is broken. It’s “bubbling up” in the workplace because people can’t find those resources they need anymore, and organizations are also underutilizing resources that they do have, like employee assistance programs, she said.

The program was sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the Young Lawyers Division and cosponsored by the ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence and Standing Committee on Professionalism and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.