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Bar News - October 20, 2006

Go Outside Your Comfort Zone


Note from NHBA President Richard B. McNamara:
The mental health of members of the legal profession is an important concern for all of us, as well as for our clients and for the sound operation of our legal system. This perspective, by my colleague at the Texas Bar Association, candidly and compassionately addresses not only the problem, but the difficulties we all face sometimes in grappling with it. Fortunately, NH lawyers and judges who are experiencing mental, emotional or substance-abuse problems will be getting more help due to initiatives underway by the judicial branch. The NH Supreme Court has proposed the creation of a Lawyers Assistance Program that will be permanently funded and professionally staffed, to help improve and coordinate the NH legal profession’s ability to help impaired lawyers and judges. (See Oct. 6 Bar News, page 2 for information on the progress of this proposal.) Look for more NH perspectives on the need for a lawyers’ assistance program in NH in the next issue of Bar News.


One of the subjects that I always ad-dress [when I speak to bar groups] is lawyer mental health. I talk about it because I think it is very important, and because I know that lawyers and judges as a group suffer disproportionately from mental health issues. We need to get the subject on the table, because if we don’t acknowledge the problem, then we’re certainly not going to make any progress toward fixing it.


When I get to this subject in my talks, I can sense the discomfort in the room. Many in the audience stop looking at me and begin studying the green beans very closely. I understand; it is an area of our lives that is often easiest left in the dark. I suspect I am no more comfortable talking about depression and suicide than the audience is hearing about it. These are areas that we are not culturally acclimated to delve into — because they are unpleasant, and because we are brought up to stay out of other peoples’ business.


This is a rule I have decided not to observe. I have seen too many of my friends and colleagues in the bar suffer from mental health issues to ignore the subject. One of my dearest friends recently wrote the following lines:

“Today has been a hard day, not because of anything that happened as much as reality is setting in: I’m in a downward spiral and I can’t seem to stop it. For reasons I don’t understand, I’m depressed again. … The night is dark and my sadness sits on my chest like dead weight. But even in the dark, I’m working hard to move in three-quarter time, feeling a rhythm that runs deeper than darkness and truer than loneliness. Today was a hard day, but I made it home.”


My immediate reaction to these words was sadness coupled with a desire to do something to make it better. I have learned that clinical depression will affect 19 million Americans this year. There are all kinds of studies and research relating to the incidence of depression and suicide among lawyers, and although I am not sure which to rely on, one thing is clear: The incidence is higher among lawyers than it is in the population at large.


On a recent trip to California, I learned that 35 percent of grievances against lawyers in that state related to attorneys with drug, alcohol, or mental health issues. The Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program worked with 550 lawyers last year — 40 percent with mental health issues and 60 percent with alcohol and drug problems.


What are we supposed to do? Think. Pay attention. People do cry for help. That doesn’t mean they are sobbing on your doorstep. But it may mean that they say small things to you about their mental and emotional condition. Be an active listener. How can you feel comfortable responding? The solution is not to solve the problem, because you probably can’t. However, taking the time to follow through with your concern at an appropriate time, discreetly and respectfully, is something that you can do.


Are there answers? Not perfect ones. But there are things we can do:


  • Learn to recognize the symptoms of depression or mental illness.
  • Don’t avoid the problem because you don’t think you can solve it. For many people, a big component of a mental health issue is isolation, fear, and loneliness. You can help just by listening to someone in trouble; instead of avoiding the issue and pretending that everything is fine.
  • Educate yourself about the help that is available. [The NHBA offers assistance through the Lawyer Assistance Committee, see related article on this page.] Many local bar associations also coordinate programs to assist and support. These groups can provide advice on how to talk to friends and colleagues about their problems. They can also help you guide others — or yourself — to treatment.


The good news is that almost anything you do to acknowledge this problem in yourself or others is a step in the right direction. The really good news is that depression is treatable.


My message to you: Take the time to do something. Anything is better than nothing. Walk outside your comfort zone.


I am way outside of mine.


Martha S. Dickie, a partner at the Austin-based law firm of Akin & Almanza, is president of the State Bar of Texas.


Reprinted with permission of the Texas Bar Journal. This article previously ran in the July 2006 edition of the Journal (go to to read the unabbreviated version of this article).


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