From my perspective, next to maybe “I am sorry,” the most difficult thing to say is “I need help.” Lawyers are paid, and pride themselves, on knowing the answers. Our credibility, in many ways, is our currency. This perspective makes it hard to acknowledge a weakness or a problem let alone to ask for guidance or support. For some lawyers, though, vanity and stubbornness are not the impediments to asking for help.
It is no secret these days that lawyers as a group are particularly likely to suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues. The statistics are stark. Lawyers are almost four times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers. Lawyers rank fourth among all occupations in suicide rates. Lawyers are twice as likely to struggle with alcohol abuse as other professions.
I am not an expert in this area and don’t presume to know why lawyers are particularly susceptible to these types of issues. What I am confident of, and what can’t be said enough in my view, is that these issues are not issues of character or morality. The research is definitive that the way some people’s brains work, rather than some sort of character flaw, makes them more likely to struggle with mental illness and addiction. We as a society are a long way from recognizing and embracing this truth. There is still an obvious and unfounded stigma associated with mental health issues such as depression or addiction.
Fortunately, the Mecklenburg County Bar (MCB) and the North Carolina State Bar are working diligently to educate lawyers on mental health and substance abuse issues—and to provide much needed help. The North Carolina Lawyers Assistance Program (NC LAP) is a service of the North Carolina State Bar. LAP provides free, confidential assistance to lawyers, judges and law students in addressing substance abuse, mental health issues and other stressors which impair or may impair an attorney’s ability to effectively practice law.
Confidentiality is the cornerstone of the program. All client interactions with LAP are held in strict confidence, including referrals. According to recent statistics, about half the calls to LAP are self-referrals from lawyers who recognize they have a problem and ask for help. LAP is a wonderful resource with an experienced and dedicated executive director in Robynn Moriates and three clinicians.
Importantly, the other half of the calls come from concerned colleagues, judges, friends and family members. It is tempting and natural to take the view, especially with lawyers we don’t know too well, that whether they are struggling is not my issue or problem. It is all too easy to make excuses to stay silent: How can I know about what is going on? Somebody close to them would reach out if there were a problem. Everyone goes through rough patches. There are lots of explanations for what is going on. How would I know if something is really wrong? I am not my brother’s keeper.
All understandable reactions—and all wrong. If you suspect a lawyer is struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, call LAP. They can help, either by giving guidance on available resources or by participating directly, through clinicians on staff, and in some instances with volunteers who have struggled with similar issues. Since everything is confidential, what do you have to lose by making the call? If there is no issue, great. No harm, no foul. On the other hand, if a fellow lawyer is struggling with an issue but either doesn’t realize it or is in denial, your call could make a huge difference. Rarely in life can such a small act have such life-altering consequences.