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Bar News - June 15, 2016


Opinion: Mental Health Campaign: Time to Change Direction

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Mental illness is treated differently than any other illness. It always has been. It remains in the shadows and away from the public square. It is rarely the subject of casual conversation or self-disclosure, and it is invariably an awkward topic when it canít be avoided.

People have been taught to hide it whenever possible and to avoid the shame that unfairly comes with it. It is too often perceived as a character flaw or a personal weakness. It is just too uncomfortable to talk about for too many of us. And so we usually donít discuss mental suffering with others in the hope that it will not strike us or someone we love, and if it does, we have learned to conceal it or at least to try.

Somehow, almost everyone is comfortable talking about heart disease, diabetes, cancers of all sorts, arthritis, Alzheimerís disease and even HIV. But none of those conditions come with the inexplicable stigma of mental illness. Given the empirical evidence around us, itís about time that we not only start talking about mental suffering, but learning about it, too. Knowledge is our best friend and could help us change the secretive culture surrounding mental illness. We will save and restore lives if we begin to treat mental illness with the respect and humanity it deserves.

Not surprisingly, the legal profession has not escaped the equal-opportunity grasp of mental illness and emotional suffering. Practicing law is enormously rewarding, but it has its own unique stressors and time pressures that sometimes drive the onset of depression and anxiety. In many cases, the remedy is self-medication with alcohol or drugs.

In an ABA survey released last year, 21 percent of lawyer respondents acknowledged that they were problem drinkers (twice the national average for the population as a whole), while 28 percent acknowledged they were suffering from depression. Eighteen percent admitted suffering from anxiety, and an alarming 11 percent admitted to suicidal thoughts. My guess is that the numbers may actually be higher for all categories but to ignore the statistics as reported would be a mistake.

Most of these findings inevitably suggest that affected lawyers are likely slipping in their day-to-day performance for clients. Although that is certainly not their intent, it is a likely consequence of their mental health challenges and often-related addictions. One of the great impediments to treatment is the stigma that unfairly comes with any acknowledged form of mental illness and the fact that those suffering its affects are often the last to know.

On May 23 we kicked off the Change Direction New Hampshire campaign on mental illness before more than 400 citizens in the House Chamber. Peter Evers, the CEO of Riverbend Community Mental Health, and I are co-chairing the first statewide rollout of Change Direction in the country.

Those attending on that Monday morning were leaders of the legal, business, faith, health care, law enforcement, education, political and mental health communities. The Governor, Speaker of the House, Senate President and our Congressional delegation attended and spoke. The goal of the campaign is simple yet powerful: to make the five most common signs of mental illness and emotional suffering as well and widely known as the signs of a heart attack or stroke. The campaign is the genius of Barbara Van Dahlen, a child psychologist from Maryland. In 2012, because of her incredible work with veterans and their families on mental health, she was selected for inclusion on Time Magazineís ďTime 100Ē list of influential people.

We need to begin a non-judgmental discussion about mental illness and self-medication that we have been afraid to have for too many decades. We need to understand that, in any given year, emotional suffering afflicts millions of Americans. Some of them are members of our profession. Many of them no doubt are highly regarded lawyers. No one asks for mental illness, and no one should be afraid to seek help. It behooves all of us to become familiar with the Five Signs so we can recognize emotional suffering when we see it and encourage colleagues to seek treatment. No one is immune. Because half of all mental illness arises by age 14, knowing the Five Signs might also help us find emotional suffering in our own homes so that early treatment is possible.

Cecie Hartigan continues to do amazing things at the NH Lawyers Assistance Program. She is a gifted and compassionate presence, and I encourage any lawyer who feels the need to reach out to her. It takes a very strong person to acknowledge a need, but the only mistake you can make is to think you can do it alone. All lawyers need to know the signs so they can help save a friend and often a career.

I encourage you to go to our website, www.ChangeDirection.org/nh, and to post the Five Signs in your office and on your refrigerator at home. I would also encourage small and large firms to start talking about mental illness. You will change and save lives if you do.


John T. Broderick Jr.

John T. Broderick Jr. is the former chief justice of the NH Supreme Court and former dean of the UNH School of Law. He now runs a private mediation practice.

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