Mental Health Challenges for Lawyers: Remove the Stigma, Expand Services

By Hank Greenberg

Hank Greenberg Headshot

The New York State Bar Association’s 29th president, Charles Evans Hughes, was one of the greatest public servants in American history. He served as chief justice of the United States, U.S. secretary of state, and a two-term governor of the state of New York. In 1916, he came within a hairsbreadth of becoming president of the United States, narrowly losing to incumbent Woodrow Wilson.

Unknown to the nation, Hughes suffered in silence with depression and anxiety. At least once he received electroshock treatments for his condition. Sometimes he required a day in bed to recuperate following an especially stressful workday.

For many decades in American society, mental illness was hidden in the shadows and stigmatized. Public disclosure of Hughes’ condition and treatment would have ended his career. Indeed, several decades later, in 1972, then-U.S. Senator Thomas Eagleton withdrew as the Democratic party’s vice-presidential candidate after it came to light that he had undergone electroshock therapy.

Thankfully, today public awareness about mental illness is on the rise. As well it should be. Fifteen percent of the adult population will suffer from depression at some point in their lifetime. Roughly half of those individuals will also have an anxiety disorder.

Nearly Half of All Lawyers Struggle with Depression

It is unlikely that any one of us is more than a degree of separation away from someone fighting this daily battle – a spouse, parent, sibling, other relative, or friend. Lawyers are no exception, especially given the stress and demands of the profession.

In fact, a recent survey of nearly 13,000 practicing attorneys and judges found that 46% had a problem with depression at some point during their career and 28% had in the previous year. Sixty-one percent suffered from anxiety during their career and five percent reported having suicidal thoughts. The legal profession suffers from the fifth most suicides by occupation.

Many high achieving lawyers like Charles Evans Hughes struggle to cope with depression, anxiety or other forms of mental illness. Many others are incapacitated by the effects of these conditions.

The problems wrought by mental illness are prevalent in law schools, too. A survey of 3,000 law students revealed that 17% suffered from depression and 21% seriously considered suicide at some point in their lifetime. Six percent indicated that they had seriously contemplated suicide within the past year.

Thus, far too many law students lead lives of quiet desperation. Worse, they are not seeking help, out of fear that doing so will endanger their ability to gain admission to the bar. An ABA study discovered that 42% of surveyed students believed they needed help for emotional or mental health issues in the past year, but only half sought assistance. That is because 45% of the respondents feared that seeking help could pose a threat to their bar admission.

While our society has made great progress in recognizing and addressing mental health issues, the disturbing reality is that stigma around mental illness remains a significant barrier to treatment within the legal profession.

NYSBA is fighting to remove the stigma that lawyers fear could haunt them during their career, for simply seeking out needed counseling or other assistance. The idea that bravely and smartly addressing one’s personal challenges early on could have a negative impact on admission to the bar is violative of our profession’s core values. Law firms and other employers of lawyers should encourage and support those who seek help for mental health or substance abuse issues, just as we would for those who are treated for physical health issues such as heart trouble or cancer.

We are committed to fostering the next generation of healthy, competent, and dedicated lawyers. To that end, a NYSBA blue-ribbon multidisciplinary task force is now reviewing questions on the application for admission to the state bar that ask about the applicant’s mental health status. The task force will examine whether such questions serve as a deterrent to an applicant obtaining mental health treatment, and, if so, call for their elimination.

NYSBA Is Expanding Our LAP Services, but New York Still Lags Far Behind Other States

NYSBA’s Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) assists attorneys, judges, and law school students. It also provides support services to families, law firms and others concerned about attorneys who suffer from substance abuse or mental health issues. It is not necessary to be a member of NYSBA to utilize these free services.

With support from the Office of Court Administration, NYSBA is expanding LAP services. But even with these additional services, New York will still lag far behind other states in the level of resources that are devoted to LAP and related programs.

States with far fewer attorneys – Massachusetts and North Carolina, for example – are devoting greater financial resources to LAP services than New York. Mental health and substance abuse programs will not be as available and effective without the financial resources to support them. New York law is pre-eminent across the country and around the world, and it is essential for us to recognize the value and importance of investing in the well-being of New York lawyers.

Mental illness is widespread in society, including the legal profession. It is as disabling as any physical disability. Here in New York, we have much work to do to remove the stigma associated with mental health treatment so our suffering colleagues can get the services and treatment that they need – without fearing the impact on their careers.

NYSBA is leading the way in this important work. We encourage the entire profession to join us.

Six diverse people sitting holding signs
gradient circle (purple) gradient circle (green)

Join NYSBA

My NYSBA Account

My NYSBA Account