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Not playing hurt: Promoting mental health is a team effort

Not playing hurt: Promoting mental health is a team effort

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Stressed lawyer in office

In the sporting world, athletes often “play hurt” through a variety of physical injuries. Competing now is their focal point, and long-term health risks the afterthought.

The practice of law is similar in many respects. Many lawyers often find it difficult, no matter what else they may be going through, to call for a substitute. So, they put on their game faces and push through stress, anxiety, depression and much else.

But left untreated, lingering injuries can lead to massive damage.

“If I break my leg [in a sporting event] everyone understands that I need to be carted off the field and get an X-ray and have a cast applied and take time to get better and do rehab,” said Douglas Ey, deputy general counsel at McGuireWoods. “It’s the same thing if I’m suffering from depression — I need to be evaluated and treated by professionals and then I can come back on the field, ready to go.”

In Virginia, the Virginia Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program has helped the legal community in the commonwealth address the issues surrounding mental health. With the pandemic heightening the issue, VJLAP has started several initiatives to assist attorneys in need.

“The focus that we have really taken over the past year, year and a half on wellness is really having a big difference on the profession,” VJLAP Executive Director Tim Carroll said. Carroll highlighted the program’s ability to reach out to more people via virtual offerings and hybrid events, including CLE presented at the Virginia State Bar Annual Meeting.

“Going forward, you will see that while we will return to in person, we’re also going to have the hybrid event where a greater number of people will be able to continue to access our services,” Carroll said.

Just as football players are more likely than golfers to be injured, studies show that lawyers are more at-risk than other populations of developing behavioral health issues, from severe anxiety to drug and alcohol abuse. Practicing law consistently ranks as one of the most stressful jobs in America. There always seem to be looming deadlines, demanding clients, and excessive work.

But athletes have a number of advantages that lawyers don’t. In the law, for instance, there are few breaks and no off-season. But the most important differences boil down to one key concept: Teammates and coaches.

Encourage help-seeking behavior

In sports, those teammates and coaches can often spot signs of physical injury and help an athlete get prompt treatment. The signs of mental health challenges are more easily concealed from colleagues and supervisors, however. In a firm, who pays attention to the agitated colleague or the one who frequently works behind closed doors? The consensus is that everyone should be aware.

“If you see something, say something,” Ey said. “We do want everyone to have their antenna up and hope that supervising lawyers and mentors will really pay attention, but we also hope that those being supervised will pay attention, too. Absolutely no one is immune.” 

If no one knows there’s a problem, no one can help. Discussing mental health recently has become less taboo than it once was, but many people are still hesitant to disclose their diagnosed or undiagnosed issues for many reasons. For lawyers, the added fear may be that they will be incorrectly perceived as incompetent or unstable, and that they will develop a reputation that negatively affects their ability to practice. In short, they’re afraid of the stigma they believe is attached to mental illness.

VJLAP Tidewater Regional Program Manager Janet Van Cuyk said it is important for the group to help break this stigma by letting people know that mental health issues are normal. Van Cuyk highlighted an upcoming panel where VJLAP clinicians are participating.

“The impetus for having the JLAP clinicians on the panel is to normalize that things aren’t normal right now and to have folks feel like they can and should have a voice in getting their needs met,” Van Cuyk said. The CLE presented at the VSB Annual Meeting, among the most well attended CLEs offered by VJLAP, devoted a significant portion of time to discussing implicit biases that exist on mental health and on removing stigma from mental health seeking behaviors.

Culture takes root early

Lawyers and athletes differ in other ways. Younger attorneys—those in their first decade of practice—are up to three times as likely to suffer from psychological issues as their older counterparts, according to a survey of nearly 13,000 attorneys conducted in 2016 by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

Those struggles often arise not from the practice of law, but the study of it. A 2014 ABA study cites significant data showing that mental and chemical illness begins in law school and can carry into practice. The transition from college to law school presents myriad potential stresses, from adapting to new teaching and testing styles to learning to balance class and life.

According to another study by Yale University, 44% of law students face significant psychological distress. The ABA study showed that 43% reported binge drinking.

Law schools are taking the issues seriously.

“We saw the same issues in our student population as the general population saw during the pandemic, with an increase in anxiety and depression,” University of Richmond Associate Dean of Students Alex Sklut said.

Sklut continued, “I think for our students, the fact that they were about to enter the job market at a time where there’s uncertainty about the economy was adding a layer of stress.”

Sklut said during the pandemic, the law school had counseling available remotely free of charge. The university increased its counseling levels for the pandemic and will be retaining the added counselors even as the world returns to a sense of normalcy.

To help at the law school level, VJLAP is involved in a monthly call with law school deans involved in student affairs. In that call, the groups involved collaborate to share their experiences and resources to better fit the needs of students.

“It is amazing to be able to work with these people to share what their experiences are and how we can work differently with them,” Van Cuyk said.

Carroll added, “We have a whole program that is being put together with the collaboration of the schools for when the students come back.”

You’ll never walk alone

Where cortisone shots may help athletes deal with the pain of a physical injury, they do little to treat the underlying problem. The same is true for managing mental afflictions. Ey said that firms must create a culture and safe places in which lawyers are comfortable telling their stories.

“I have a clip of Steph Curry twisting his ankle, and that is just like somebody being debilitated by mental health issues,” Ey said. “He needed to be carried off the floor by his teammates. [Lawyers] need to be taken home by our colleagues.”   

Whether someone is a first-year law student or a senior partner, professional help is often paramount to winning psychological battles. For firms, the imperative to help lawyers get the help they need, when they need it, is both moral and professional.

“Running a law firm, you’re running a human capital business and you’ve got to think clearly because it’s at the heart of what we do,” Ey said. “The smart firms are paying attention … there’s so much pain and so much stress that we have to deal with.”

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