Bar News - December 21, 2016
Board Perspective: With Open Conversations, We Can Remove Stigma
By: David W. McGrath
Many of you likely heard former NH Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick speak so eloquently at the State House in May about Change Direction, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of those with mental illness and encouraging respectful conversation about mental health. He reminded us that many decades ago people only spoke in hushed tones about cancer, the way they now too often speak of mental illness. He shared a story about his childhood and his friend’s family across the street. His friend’s uncle would visit every Sunday from the state mental hospital. This man could be seen pacing the yard and focusing more intently than usual on flowers or the flight of a bird.
Not understanding mental illness, the young Broderick was fearful of the man he could not understand. Watching from the safety of his yard, Broderick was thankful back then that mental illness lived on the other side of the street. Then, one day many years later, mental illness crossed the street and visited his family, changing their lives significantly.
Despite Broderick’s good work promoting discussion and awareness of mental illness, there is much work to be done, because mental illness is still shrouded in stigma and denial. This is especially true among lawyers.
The recent ABA/Hazelden study, which was discussed at this year’s NH Bar Association Annual Meeting during the afternoon CLE, found that lawyers are significantly more likely than the general population to face stress-related disorders and mental illness, substance abuse, and alcoholism, and to suffer in silence. The good news is that we lawyers also tend to be much more resilient than the average person and more likely to follow good advice when given, so when we get help, the stories often end well.
I was recently privileged to attend the National Conference for Lawyers Assistance Programs with Cecie Hartigan, director of the NH Lawyers Assistance Program, and other New Hampshire representatives. While I had a basic understanding of the good work lawyers assistance programs do, I had no idea the scope or magnitude of these life-changing services.
At the conference, one Midwestern lawyer shared his story. His father was a very prominent lawyer and state politician. He talked about making his father proud when he graduated law school. He isn’t sure exactly when he realized he was alcoholic, but it may have been when he “borrowed” money from his client account to buy drinks at a local bar, or when he drove drunk with his children in the car, or later when he was disbarred and had damaged the family name. Most importantly, he shared his story of redemption, rebuilding his life step by step, which involved in no small part the help given to him by his state’s lawyers assistance program and the help he has since given to his colleagues in crisis.
A prominent California lawyer talked about days when her drug addiction, alcoholism, and homelessness nearly destroyed her. She shared a horrifying account of an automobile accident that left her near death and in traction for weeks. Like the Midwestern lawyer, and many others who shared their own stories of substance abuse, alcoholism, or mental illness, the California lawyer spoke passionately about asking for help, getting help, and her decades of sobriety and client service.
I am reminded of US Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s comment at this year’s celebration of NH Bar members who had been in practice for 50 years. He recalled his mentor, Dudley Orr, emphasizing that one of the most important things a lawyer can do is “give the other [person] a hand.” Our Lawyers Assistance Program is doing this every day, confidentially. We should welcome the chance to help one another in need and to familiarize ourselves with the program, discussing openly its good work on behalf of all of us. In our everyday conversations and interactions, we should work to destigmatize mental illness, stress-related problems and substance abuse. As the lead author of the ABA/Hazelden study suggests, there needs to be a cultural shift by law firms and lawyers that produces more open conversation about these issues. As legal professionals in New Hampshire, we should follow that good advice.
Online at www.lapnh.org and www.changedirection.org.
Editor’s Note: President-elect Scott Harris has invited other members of the NHBA Board of Governors to participate in the Perspectives column this year.