Mental Health in the Legal World

Many Americans are no strangers to having dealt with mental health problems, or knowing someone who has. Even before this past year of uncertainty and isolation, almost 20% of American adults were with a mental illness.[1] Additionally, suicidal ideation has increased by .15% (or over 460,000 people) over 2020.[2] Even in States with greater access to health care, 1 in 3 children go without treatment.[3] Also, since 2011, 24% of adults living with a mental illness have reported an unmet need for treatment.[4] Rates of suicide have been steadily increasing over the past few decades. In 2018 alone, 48,344 Americans died by suicide, 70% of those deaths being white males.[5] This problem is being tackled head on, but the battle is far from over. Slowing the battle down is the unnecessary and damaging stigma that hangs like a rain cloud over those suffering with mental illness or mental problems, as if the cloud over their head isn’t raining enough.

Attorneys are no stranger to stress, anxiety, depression, and a myriad of other mental health and substance use problems. Just like normal every day Americans, we too face such a stigma. The American Bar Association reported in 2018 that attorneys are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as Americans who hold other jobs, 28% suffer from depression, 19% have symptoms of anxiety, and 21% are problem drinkers.[6] Kevin Chandler, an attorney and director of the legal professionals program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the nation’s largest addiction treatment provider, explained the issue we are facing flawlessly:

The legal profession combines long hours, high stress, isolation, a trained need to never show vulnerability, and work that by its very definition is antagonistic and conflict-laden, and that makes for a toxic environment conducive to addiction and mental health issues. Legal work combines all the elements that contribute to substance abuse and other disorders into one toxic pot.[7]

This “toxic pot” leads to a dangerous stigma that causes people to lose their professional life, family life, and most importantly their living and breathing life. The stigma makes us afraid to speak up about what we are feeling, afraid that we may lose our jobs, our license, and our self-worth because maybe we aren’t able to be the attorney we so desperately wanted to be. Not only are attorneys fearful, but law students are also no stranger to this fear either. In 2014, a study called the Survey of Law Student Well-Being, administered by the ABA, found that while 42 percent of respondents said they needed help with emotional and mental health problems in the past year, less than half of those actually sought help. But why? One answer could be that expensive application we had to complete to become what we strived for:  the bar application.

The most current data available from the ABA Commission on Disability Rights indicates that 39 states and D.C. ask about the existence of a mental health condition or impairment and 32 states and D.C. ask about treatment. Not shockingly, many students feel that this does not encourage speaking out, rather, it deters them because they believe it will impact their dream of becoming an attorney. The questions can seem invasive, and many also believe that these questions are asked to protect the public and not the participants.[8] Luckily, there is a slow shift towards removing and replacing these questions throughout the country, with New York joining nine other states in removing their mental health questions earlier this year.[9]

Unfortunately, New Jersey still requires these questions.[10] Removing any mental healthcare questionnaire from our bar application is a step that should be taken immediately. Of course, these type of questions are not the only reason why many do not seek help, but it is certainly part of the problem.

It is time we begin to speak up about these issues. Not only will it save lives, but it will allow for a more inclusive environment across every facet of our legal world. Whether you are thinking about going to law school, currently in law school, or lucky enough to survive the bar exam and make it to your dream job, we all have valid emotions that deserve the utmost attention. The first step is to begin talking. When we hold in these emotions, they won’t go away, they will only become stronger, and when pressure builds and builds, it eventually explodes. Before something drastic occurs, we should have the reassurance that if we do discuss our mental health problems, just like a cancer patient discusses their cancer, there should not be a negative stigma that drags with it.  

One helpful resource is with the confidential organization, New Jersey Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL). Based out of Trenton, lawyers with mental health and/or substance abuse issues now have a support system, where they can learn and apply the appropriate tools to become the lawyer they want to be.  LCL offers support meetings and additional resources so lawyers have a place to turn to when needed. Knowing firsthand the impact that this organization can provide, New Jersey Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is one step towards the right direction to help those in the legal profession obtain a healthy lifestyle, both personally and professionally.


[1] https://mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] https://afsp.org/suicide-statistics/

[6] https://www.abajournal.com/voice/article/lawyers_weigh_in_why_is_there_a_depression_epidemic_in_the_profession

[7] Id.

[8] https://www.americanbar.org/groups/bar_services/publications/bar_leader/2019_20/january-february/a-new-look-at-character-and-fitness-bar-leaders-lawyers-others-urge-elimination-of-mental-health-questions/

[9] https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/new-york-removes-mental-health-questions-from-state-bar-application

[10] https://www.law.com/njlawjournal/2020/03/15/bar-application-shouldnt-inquire-into-mental-health/

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