The Role of Mental Health in the Legal Profession
Updated: Oct 18
The United States Constitution guarantees all individuals legal representation when they are charged with a crime. While many alleged criminals are able to pay for an expensive attorney, others must deal with the attorney the court appoints to them or be lucky enough to be represented by an attorney who is working pro bono. Specifically in the criminal context, thousands of alleged criminals are appointed public defenders to represent them in court each year. However, burnout rates among public defenders and all lawyers are high. While it’s impossible to identify the sole reason for high burn out rates, research suggests mental and emotional stress are the primary factors leading to high burn out rates in the criminal context. Criminal defense attorneys are often required to handle intense cases that can take a toll on them emotionally. Two prime examples include both rape and murder. Filing through the facts of those situations, alongside trial preparation that could potentially commence years in the future, will surely wane on any attorney’s mental health.
The mental stress of high-intensity criminal or civil cases can have dramatic consequences on an individual’s mind. An attorney may begin to experience obsessive thoughts, difficulty concentrating, heart palpitations, depression, anxiety, and sometimes even suicidal thoughts. Suicide is particularly prevalent within the legal profession, in comparison to other professions. In 1990, John Hopkins University studied more than one hundred occupations and concluded that lawyers suffered from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than the other professions studied. In 2004, one lawyer a month in Oklahoma committed suicide, and in 2010, Kentucky had fifteen lawyers commit suicide. Finally, a newly conducted research report released earlier this year showed that twenty-eight percent, nineteen percent, and twenty three-percent of the 12,285 currently practicing attorneys sampled showed signs of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.
Statistics are meaningless unless we realize that that numbers being depicted represent actual people. Real lawyers are struggling with mental stress, and it is the job of fellow practitioners to introduce changes within the legal profession from the top down. Federal Government and State government offices, law firms, NGO’s, and all other organizations that retain lawyers must realize that the lawyers they employ will not be able to successfully represent their clients if their own mental health is in jeopardy. The mental health of the attorney is both vital for that specific individual’s wellbeing and for the individuals that seek representation from the attorney. At the same time, lawyers themselves must take the initiative and seek out help when they need it. In a 2004 study conducted at Cottonwood de Tucson, a behavioral treatment center in Arizona, researchers interviewed lawyers there that were recovering from mental illnesses. Many of them said that they did not seek help because they either believed they could handle it on their own or they were afraid that seeking help would negatively harm their professional reputation.
Reluctance to reach out for help due to fear of harming one’s reputation is not a unique issue to lawyers. Professionals in other fields may feel this pressure to protect their images as well. However, when the rate of depression and suicide are high within a select group, changing the culture within that group is required to ensure that the group remains stable, healthy, and competent to work. In 2014, CNN reported that as many as eight states had begun to take measures to stop the high suicide rate among lawyers. These measures included adding a mental health component to mandatory legal continuing education.
These measures mentioned are a good start, but more states need to jump on the bandwagon and require that the mental health of attorneys be understood and ultimately addressed in a more meaningful way. Other options are also available. State and local bar associations should hold workshops every year that lawyers are required to attend. In these workshops, mental health experts will answer any questions lawyers have and help lawyers, especially criminal defense attorneys, to understand how they can cope with the stress that comes with dealing with high-intensity cases and subjects. More efforts also need to be made regarding lawyers’ ability to confidentially report any concerns about their health. There are organizations in every state that allow those in the legal profession to report to medical professionals confidentially, but these organizations are not well known. Therefore, while some state legislatures have begun to address the mental health of lawyers, the organizations that employ lawyers must make it a priority to teach their lawyers about mental health resources available to them. Rather than placing and perpetuating a stigma on attorneys seeking help, the culture of the legal field must shift. Unless attorneys are encouraged to seek help for potential mental health issues, this cycle will continue and burn out rates will continue to rise as well.