Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues: This is Us

By Hon. Karen Peters

This is Us

This issue of the State Bar Journal is unlike any other. While two articles discuss clients who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse and programs that serve them, the balance of this issue is not about them – it is about us.

Too often we look at mentally ill or substance abusing clients or litigants as “them.” But we shouldn’t. The problems they face are not just theirs, they are ours too. Mental illness and substance abuse impacts our professional lives and our personal lives. In this ground-breaking issue, your colleagues Sallie Krauss, Tom Nicotera and Carl Landicino courageously share their personal stories of struggle and recovery with you.

My life in the law has taught me many lessons but the most valuable has been learning that the only thing we keep forever is that which we give away. I am truly grateful for the contributors who have given of themselves to bring understanding to others.

We are all quite familiar with routine flight procedures. You enter the airplane, find your assigned seat, safely store your items in the overhead bin and below the seat in front of you, and put on your seat belt. Before the plane ascends into the sky the flight attendant or a video message reminds you of the safety features of the aircraft and how to use them.

“Make sure to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others” you are told. As you listen, in your heart you may well think, “How can I take care of myself before my daughter who is sitting next to me?” Yet you accept the advice from the airline because you realize that you need to breathe in order to care for others. And you do.

As lawyers and judges you need to remain healthy in order to serve your clients and litigants. We all know full well the unique stressors lawyers and judges suffer such as isolation, the pressure to be impartial under challenging circumstances, the need to remain professional and courteous when others are behaving badly, and the sheer avalanche of work.

Judges strive to be fair and impartial, must often render decisions that conflict with their values, and remain ever open to public scrutiny.

Our stressors can manifest as sleep disturbances, temperament changes, physical ailments, alcoholism, substance abuse, or depression. Each of us must recognize and implement wellness strategies to address our stressors when they arise. While most lawyers and judges have adequate resources to address physical health challenges through the use of medical insurance coverage, physical illness often has psychological consequences that go unaddressed by health providers.

And while friends and family will express heartfelt sympathy and offer personal assistance if you break your leg while skiing or injure your back in an auto accident such attention and understanding disappears if you become addicted to the pain killers that were provided to you during your recovery.

The New York State Bar Association, through its Lawyer Assistance Program and Judicial Wellness Committee, provides confidential assistance to lawyers, judges and their family members, and formulates and recommends policies to assist lawyers and judges in dealing with treatable mental illnesses such as addiction and depression. Rehabilitation is promoted in an environment of care and concern buttressed by confidentiality guaranteed by legislation.

We are grateful for the leadership of Tom Schimmerling, chair of the Lawyers Assistance Program, and Jonah Triebwasser, chair of the Judicial Wellness Committee, and the decades of service members of those committees have provided.

Truly, we all need to put our own oxygen mask on before helping others. And we need to be ever mindful that when it comes to mental illness and substance abuse, there is no line between them and us.

Be it long distance running, yoga, golf, swimming, a gym workout, meditation or a relaxing walk in the woods, good physical and mental health are necessary to enable us to serve our life in the law. Embracing wellness will bring you a better professional and personal life, provide a guidepost to those you lead and make you a great leader in your own right.

You may not be familiar with the serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous. Let me share it with you. It asks for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. We can change the isolating culture that pervades substance abuse and mental illness among the bench and bar. We can encourage and achieve wellness for our clients and ourselves.

I applaud the New York State Bar Association and our contributors for the courage to change the things we can.

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