POINT OF VIEW: Destigmatizing mental health in the legal profession

    9:33 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017 Opinion

It was only October that the legal community lost one of our most vocal champions for mental health. As executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance Inc., Michael Cohen spent the past 20 years advocating for attorneys struggling with substance abuse and mental illness. He also spent this same time recovering from his own battle with addiction.

Cohen was a safety net to so many in need. My hope is that we can continue his legacy by ensuring attorneys who suffer from mental health challenges have a place to turn – without fear of judgment or rebuke.

The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors in July voted to create the Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers.

This five-member committee, chaired by Miami attorney Dori Foster-Morales, is already working to identify ways the Bar can destigmatize mental illness within our legal community, and to recommend practices and remedies to improve both the Bar’s rules and programming to provide enhanced support to our members statewide.

We cannot eliminate all of the stresses in our lives. However, we can make a difference by identifying specific tools and mechanisms to help attorneys seek and receive help without fear of scrutiny and ridicule.

Mental health issues touch every facet of our legal community – from solo practitioners and law firm partners all the way down to law school students who feel daily pressure to graduate and become licensed and successful as soon as possible.

According to a report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, between 21 and 36 percent of practicing lawyers qualify as problem drinkers. Additionally, approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.

In this same report, law students didn’t fare much better. Seventeen percent of law students experienced some level of depression, 14 percent experienced severe anxiety, 23 percent had mild or moderate anxiety, and 6 percent reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year.

The Bar’s own data also raises similar concerns. In 2015, a Bar membership survey found that 33 percent of Florida lawyers saw high stress as a significant challenge and 32 percent of respondents said balancing work and family life was a significant challenge.

Such statistics, although heartbreaking, should not be surprising. On average, many attorneys work 60-plus-hour weeks, not counting weekends. We engage in a profession that is highly competitive and based on results, which can create extreme stress and a willingness to sacrifice our own self-care to pursue victory. We act as sponges, absorbing the issues and traumas brought through the door by clients.

Lawyers also tend to be ambitious, over-achieving Type A-personalities, and many in our profession don’t like to admit or show any sign of weakness – even to a health care professional.

This is in part why the Bar’s special committee is so focused on reducing the stigma that accompanies mental health issues, and creating a forum for people to speak up before it’s too late.

MICHAEL J. HIGER, BOCA RATON

Editor’s note: Michael J. Higer is president of The Florida Bar and a partner at Berger Singerman.