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Lawyers Reaching Out to Lawyers With Mental Health Problems

Beyond the HR department.

By Dan Lukasik

Depression and anxiety are all too common at law firms. A medical journal study suggests that as many as half of all lawyers in the U.S. will struggle with one or both of these conditions at some point in their career.

Historically, if mental health problems are addressed in a law firm, it is through the human resources department or an employee assistance program (EAP). But these people aren’t in the best position to help before a mental health issue gets out of hand.

Other lawyers who work side by side with the lawyer who is suffering are in the best position to assist. One reason is because their suffering colleagues will often be reticent to approach HR or an EAP for fear of losing their jobs. They worry their problem will be used against them, or damage their reputation. Another reason lawyers don’t seek help through HR is the ever-present specter of stigma. They don’t want to expose their struggle with these problems for fear that others will judge them as being “lazy,” “weak” or unable to “cut it” as a lawyer. There is always a chance that a fellow lawyer may think this too. However, lawyers understand the high-stress loads of fellow lawyers. They are much more likely to “get it” and want to help in a confidential way.

What Can You Do to Help a Colleague with Mental Health Issues?

First, get educated about the signs of anxiety and depression. Second, recognize that it is OK to approach a person who may be struggling. Too often, people say to themselves, “It’s none of my business” or “I don’t want to invade their privacy.” Fair points. However, many suffering lawyers wish a fellow lawyer would care enough to ask, in a warm and constructive way, if they are feeling alright.

When I was stricken with depression and anxiety more than 10 years ago, almost no one at work said anything to me. Often, it’s not what people say to someone with mental health problems that hurts; it’s that they say nothing. This silence further isolates an already suffering person and makes them feel even more alone and that no one cares.

Once you decide to approach a colleague, remember this person is not searching for someone who feels like they do. They are searching for a person who is trying to understand what they feel. Be that person for them.

Here are some brief do’s and don’ts:

  • Do listen with an open mind.
  • Do ask questions.
  • Do encourage the individual to get help.
  • Don’t make comments such as “You’re fine,” “Cheer up” or “Everybody has problems.”
  • Don’t say you know how they feel if you don’t.

The great writer and naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson best summed up the value of helping another:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Live well.

Help a fellow lawyer today.

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Dan Lukasik Dan Lukasik

Dan Lukasik is Director of the Workplace Well-Being Program for the Mental Health Association in Buffalo, N.Y. He lectures on the topics of stress, anxiety and depression in the legal profession, and does on-site, CLE-accredited programs for law firms and bar associations. He is creator of the award-winning website and his work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, on CNN and other national and international publications. He has lectured at many law schools, including Harvard and Yale. Follow him @DanLukasik.

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