Mental Health Awareness Month: Tips for Attorneys
I love practicing law and love lawyers. But, at times, it can be exhausting. As lawyers, we sometimes feel that we should be everything to everyone. The calm one amidst a crisis. The funding source for life-changing litigation. The one who listens and supports those suffering through some of the worst things imaginable. And all this in addition to being a caring and supportive spouse, parent, and child.
It is no wonder that a recent landmark study on lawyer impairment shows a profession in crisis, with 45% of attorneys reporting depression, 61% anxiety, and 11.5% suicidal thoughts at some point during their career. Yet, despite these alarming figures, 63% of the surveyed attorneys did not receive any mental health support.
I’m proud to say that, as a profession, we are trying to bring attention to these problems and destigmatize getting help when you need it. There is no shame in focusing on your own mental health or admitting that you need to get help from a professional. The Alabama State Bar has a counseling program that provides 5 free counseling sessions for every lawyer in the State. These are completely confidential and are a good place to start if you need professional help.
Whether or not you seek professional help, here are some tips on how you can maintain your mental health.
1. Create an Attitude of Gratitude
A few years ago, our Vacation Bible School program included a song, “Gratitude..It’s an Attitude”. It was catchy and has stuck with me through the years. Larry Morris spoke at a Young Lawyers event I attended a long time ago and reminded us all that we should be grateful to be sitting in air conditioning most days and having been given the ability to help people because there are folks that work a lot harder physically and make a lot less.
Research has shown that the conscious practice of gratitude can reduce feelings of anxiety and stress and that a single act of thoughtful gratitude produces an immediate 10% increase in happiness and a 35% reduction in depressive symptoms. A daily list of 3 things that you are grateful for is an easy and inexpensive way to quickly improve your mental health.
2. Recognize Burnout and Move Through It
Burnout is common among lawyers. Contributing factors don’t go away on their own. Some are external and some are internal. We can control both. If the root cause is the type of practice, job, firm, or another external factor, make a change. You are best equipped to effectuate change in your life and the best time to do it is now. If it is internal, try making less drastic changes in your life to freshen it. Take a vacation, take up a new hobby, get in shape, do something different in your life. It will give you something to focus on other than work.
3. Maintain Healthy Boundaries
We often walk life’s journey with people who are experiencing some of the most difficult and challenging times of their lives. Whether it’s catastrophic injuries, illnesses, deaths, or other losses, they don’t only take a toll on our clients who look to us for support. The lines between work and life continue to blur. Some clients expect us to be accessible 24-7. But we don’t have to be. Establish some boundaries. Take e-breaks. Unplug.
4. Take Time Off
I had a friend recently tell me he hasn’t had a vacation in 5 years. That is not sustainable. Because if we don’t get away from it all, we will be carried out. Disengaging is so important. It helps us to put our life and our career in perspective. It doesn’t have to be an expensive vacation or even lengthy. A few unplugged 3-day weekends can do wonders. Just try to really unplug.
5. Maintain Healthy Lifestyles
We lead fairly sedentary lives. We eat on the run. We miss meals. We don’t get enough quality sleep. We know this isn’t healthy, but we don’t always consider the consequences. The physical consequences cannot be overstated – high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, etc. But the mental health implications are just as significant. Poor mental health can also lead to poor physical health. And vice versa, good mental health can lead to good physical health. Literally, small steps make a difference. Get up from your desk and walk around the block (or the building if you’re in a high rise) a couple of times a day. Walking for 20 minutes a day will generate better physical and mental health before you know it.