May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which seems particularly timely as we continue to confront the COVID-19 global pandemic. While Americans are starting to adjust to our “new normal,” a large segment of the population is susceptible to experiencing mental health issues and may also have to confront past issues with substance abuse. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the increased stress levels from the pandemic can cause myriad health problems, including increased use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
As a profession, attorneys are even more vulnerable to substance abuse, anxiety and depression, which occur at higher rates than in the general population. A study a few years ago by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, in collaboration with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, examined alcohol use, substance abuse, mental health issues and help-seeking behaviors of lawyers. The study found that, “Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations. Mental health distress is also significant. These data underscore the need for greater resources for lawyer assistance programs, and also the expansion of available attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions.”
Attorney mental health and well-being is always a priority, given the high risks. However, these issues may need special attention at a time when people are uncertain about the future, caring for their own health or the health of loved ones, and dealing with unprecedented struggles (from business and economic pressures to home-schooling children). By recognizing these vulnerabilities, lawyers and law firms may be able to address these issues in a pragmatic manner and help attorneys cope with stress, anxiety, fear, isolation and social distancing in the most healthful way possible.
Stay Connected and Visible
Our collective effort to “flatten the curve” and maintain social distancing measures serves a valuable public purpose, but it also may leave many attorneys feeling isolated. The practice of law can be social, benefiting from collaboration and interaction with others. Accordingly, many attorneys and firms are trying not to fall prey to the “out of sight, out of mind” mindset. Now, more than ever, it is especially important to stay connected with both clients and colleagues. Notably, although staying connected can have an important positive influence on mental health, it can also help people stay on track with business goals to know that others are trying their best to maintain normalcy.
Another option is to consider creative ways (e.g., virtual meet-ups) to stay connected with colleagues and clients while subject to stay-at-home orders. Coordinating weekly video meetings with an agenda that includes both business and personal connections can help foster a sense of community. This approach can also help colleagues partake in the impromptu discussions that would typically occur in an office situation and can have a positive impact on morale. Seeing others via video chat can also help boost the moods of those participating and provide attorneys with opportunities to check in on colleagues if support is needed.
Take Advantage of Bar Programs and Other Resources
There are a number of resources available to attorneys to address mental health and substance abuse issues. Given the unprecedented health crisis, the ABA and various state bars have emphasized the importance of these issues.
The ABA has developed a COVID-19 Mental Health Resources website, which includes a useful database that categorizes resources by topic (e.g., anxiety; depression; law practice management/leadership; social distancing; mental health; stress; substance use, etc.) relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, many state and local bars have dedicated mental health resources, from peer-to-peer support to subsidized counseling sessions to hotlines.
Prioritize a Healthy Virtual Firm Culture
Law firms are taking steps during this unprecedented time to develop or promote firm initiatives aimed at mental wellness. For instance, some firms are facilitating programs at this time designed for attorneys and staff with focuses on individual or group meditation, webinars on mental health and other articles or guidance on relevant subjects.
In addition, law firms can employ or continue to prioritize mentoring. Recent law school graduates and less-experienced attorneys often suffer from higher rates of abuse and dependency; however, mentorship can help combat or avoid those issues. In light of the physical distance, law firms may consider emphasizing virtual mentoring in official or unofficial capacities to help support others.
Develop Healthy Practices and Boundaries
Attorneys are well-experienced in experiencing or navigating stress. Stress-relief techniques may require special attention during these times. Exercising on a regular basis can help alleviate stress and has been proven to be a natural mood-booster as it releases endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and other important neurotransmitters. In addition, partaking in meditation, implementing a regular sleep schedule and eating healthy well-balanced meals can help the mind and body deal with both the mental, emotional and physical ramifications of the living through a pandemic.
Attorneys also may rally for each other if they are concerned about a colleague’s well-being. In the appropriate situation, if attorneys are worried that one of their colleagues is struggling during this time, they may consider addressing that concern with the Human Resources department/management or the colleague directly.
Finally, as Mental Health Awareness Month strives to remove the stigma and encourage the affected individuals to seek health, attorneys can feel encouraged to seek professional help when necessary.