Open Site Navigation

My Vision for the Legal Profession: Prioritizing Attorney Mental Health
By: Natalia Talbot

By the time I retire from practicing law, I envision a legal profession that values and prioritizes mental health. My vision is motivated by personal loss and experience, and a sincere hope for change.[1]

Just before dawn on Thanksgiving Day, 2018, I received a phone call from my father. It was a call that we all hope never to receive, but that sadly, many of us have or may receive one day. In a shattered state, my father told me that my younger sister, just 28 years old at the time, had taken her own life.

My sister was a gregarious, ambitious, and uniquely creative individual. Though not an attorney, her career path was also demanding and competitive. Like me, she felt the financial pressure of mounting debt, an unreasonable rent, and little pay (at the time, I was a publicly paid prosecutor living and working in a major city). I think my sister struggled, as I did then, to make meaning of the daily grind that budding professionals are expected to endure. I have no doubt that this, and other factors, severely affected her mental health.

Though I have lost many loved ones in addition to my sister (including my mother, my closest friend, my father-in-law, and a pregnancy), the emotional turmoil caused by my sister’s suicide is, by far, the most poignant in my life. I will be forever haunted by the excruciating and unanswerable questions that suicide leaves in its wake, such as, “Why did this happen?” “How could she do this?” (or “How could she do this to us?”), and the hardest question, “What, if anything, could we have done to prevent her death?”

Three weeks after my sister died, I moved across the country with my new husband (we had been married just six weeks at the time) and began a new legal position. It was a higher paying job with decent benefits that some might describe as prestigious. I had hoped that it would be the “fresh, new start” that my husband and I desperately needed to move beyond the losses that we had suffered. But I misjudged the unrelenting nature of grief. It was as easy to untangle grief from my daily consciousness as it would be to disrobe my shadow in the sun. My supervisor was new to his position as well, had never been a manager before, and was unprepared to manage personnel with indescribable loss (me). It was an unfortunate situation for us both. In sum, there was an expectation that, though I might be suffering, I was never to let that impact my work, and I was certainly not to take any meaningful time away from my work in order to focus on my mental health. Unsurprisingly, I failed to meet his expectations in that regard for almost two years. In other words, the more I attempted to silence my grief, the louder it became, and the more it affected my every undertaking.

Sadly, I was not alone in those circumstances. Many of you, fellow legal professionals, are experiencing hardship or are suffering from depression. As a group, lawyers are known to suffer from poor mental health in greater numbers than many other professions. According to the American Psychological Association, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer depression than non-lawyers. According to the Dave Nee Foundation in New York, 37% of North Carolina lawyers suffer depression, while 11% of North Carolina lawyers suffer from suicidal ideation (meaning having thoughts or ideas about the possibility of ending one’s life).[2]

Take a moment to consider these statistics at your own employment setting. If your firm employs 30 attorneys, approximately eleven of them may be suffering from depression, and that three may be considering ending their lives. For a larger employer with 300 attorneys, these numbers change to 111 and 30, respectively, and so on. If you find this hard to believe, consider that lawyers rank fifth occupationally in the incidence of suicide according to the Nee Foundation,[3] and that nationally, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for Americans on the whole.[4] And, as many of you may have seen in recent news, a prominent member of our legal community and graduate of Wake Forest University Law School, Cheslie Kryst, recently died by suicide at the age of 30.[5]

Looking at these statistics, we should agree that, as a group, we are in trouble. And how could we not be? The pressures of the legal profession can be overwhelming. We owe great responsibilities to our clients, colleagues, staff, opposing counsel, members of the judiciary, and, of course, to our families and friends. Most importantly, we have responsibilities with respect to our mental health. Yet, by and large, we allow our mental health to fall to the lowest rung of our “to do” lists.

 

In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, mental health awareness is particularly crucial. Our professional and personal spheres have changed immensely, and we are unlikely to return to the “world” we knew before the pandemic. We operate our businesses differently. We interact with colleagues, clients, and the judiciary differently. We have lost family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors to the disease – on a national scale, hundreds of thousands of losses. It is indisputable that we have changed, and all of this has had a measurable impact on mental health. According to household surveys conducted by the Center for Disease Control throughout the pandemic, 40.1% of respondents reported having symptoms of depressive disorder or anxiety disorder during the height of the pandemic in June 2020. About eighteen months later, that percentage dropped to 32.1% of respondents reporting symptoms of depressive disorder or anxiety disorder in December 2021.[6] These numbers, though decreasing, are not insignificant, and underscore the need for prioritizing mental health, now more than ever.

The legal field in North Carolina, and the greater community, have taken some noteworthy steps to promote prioritizing mental health. For example:

NCLAP: The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program (NCLAP) provides free and confidential assistance in treating depression and preventing suicide for all members of the legal profession.[7]

The NC Bar Association’s BarCARES program: This program offers confidential and cost-free support to members of participating judicial district bars, voluntary bar associations and law schools, including coping with personal, family life, and work-life issues.[8]

NC Bar Mental Health/Substance Abuse CLE: The North Carolina State Bar requires attendance at a CLE course discussing substance abuse and mental health at least once every three calendar years.[9]

The Lawyers Depression Project: This group of legal professionals offers a range of peer-to-peer support groups for other legal professionals.[10]

Dial 988: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will officially change to a three-digit number, 988, on July 16, 2022. Anyone who dials that number will be directed to a local suicide prevention hotline to receive immediate assistance.[11]

Despite these developments, we have a significant way to go before we reach what I envision for our field. I envision a legal profession in which mental health is highly valued and taken seriously, such that the number of attorneys who are depressed and/or have suicidal ideation drops significantly. But how do we get there? Admittedly, I do not have that answer and have not intended to present you with one.[12] I can only imagine some changes that we, whether legal employees or employers,[13] can make towards that end:

Employee Assistance Programs (“EAP”): Employers can offer an EAP, which partners with certain mental health providers to encourage employees to seek mental health treatment and pays for a certain number (e.g., four to six) of initial counseling sessions.

Employers should encourage mental health leave when appropriate: Employers can not only allow — but also encourage — employees to take leave for mental health related reasons. For example, employers should encourage employees to seek therapeutic counseling or stress relief when needed, despite the time away from work that it may mean. Additionally, employers should model, and thus encourage, this behavior by taking mental health leave as well. This change requires emphasizing the team aspect of the workplace culture, such that work can be effectively delegated to others in an employee’s absence. This means valuing the well-being of the team above other priorities. Though employers may be resistant to this change at first, the long-term impact will be highly beneficial to employers. It will increase employee productivity and encourage the retention of talented employees. Employees will remain committed to an employer that values their well-being, including mental health needs.

Employees must advocate for their needs: Employees must prioritize time for attending counseling or therapy, and for relieving stress, such as scheduling time for exercise, spending quality time with family or friends, taking a vacation (or stay-cation), or other methods of stress relief. Employees must explore ways in which to limit extreme, or extraneous, pressure at work. This might mean discussing an overwhelming workload with your employers or respectfully declining to take on additional tasks if you are unable to add more to your plate. I recognize that some employees may be met with resistance from their employers at first, and this is exactly why it this change requires a community effort. However, just as each of us is responsible for maintaining our own physical health, we are individually responsible for advocating for our mental health needs. Accordingly, it is essential that employees advocate for themselves in this regard.

Talk about mental health at work and at home: Most importantly, we should talk about mental health at work and at home. I recognize there is still a stigma associated with discussing mental health in any setting, and so this might be an uncomfortable (or maybe unfathomable) step for some. However, an open dialogue will signal to others that mental health is valued and taken seriously, and it will reduce the stigma associated with mental health concerns. This is an enormous but crucial change for the better.

These are steps we must all take together. The end result, I believe, will be a healthier and thus more productive attorney. In the cumulative, this means healthier and more productive legal professionals and members of our greater community. To use myself as an example, I am a much more efficient attorney and effective advocate now that I have chosen to prioritize my mental health. I have attended grief counseling for more than three years. I joined a firm that genuinely values my well-being and emphasizes the team aspect of our work culture. I take time off when appropriate, and I communicate with my firm about balancing the demands of my workload and those of my personal life (I am also a new parent).

In sum, I envision a legal professional and legal community that prioritizes mental health. How we get to that point is up to all of us. I hope that this piece raises greater awareness regarding attorney mental health — and helps decrease the stigma attached to it — so that we, as a legal community, might be able to help those suffering from depression, and ultimately, to prevent further loss of life among our colleagues. This is my vision for the legal profession, and one that I believe we can reach together long before I retire from the practice of law.

 

The author dedicates this piece to the memory of her sister, Brittany Ruth Belland.

[1] I am not a mental health professional, and this submission does not reflect the opinions, findings, or conclusions of a mental health professional.

[2] Webb, Michael S., Dissenting from Death: Preventing Lawyer Suicide | American Bar Association, Voice of Experience November 2021, ABA Groups: Senior Lawyer Division, retrieved January 27, 2022, Read Article.

[3] Lawyers and Depression, David Nee Foundation Website, retrieved February 15, 2022, Read Article.

[4] American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Suicide Statistics, retrieved January 27, 2022, Read Article.

[5] Suicide Prevention Resources, North Carolina State Bar, retrieved February 1, 2022, Read Article.

[6] Anxiety and Depression Household Pulse Survey, retrieved February 3, 2022, Read Article.

[7] North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program, Services, retrieved January 27, 2022, Read Article.

[8] North Carolina Bar Association BarCARES, retrieved February 23, 2022, Read Article.

[9] North Carolina State Bar Continuing Legal Education, CLE Requirements In North Carolina For Lawyers, retrieved January 27, 2022, Read Article.

[10] The Lawyers Depression Project, retrieved February 2, 2022, Read Article.

[11] National Suicide Prevention Hotline, The Lifeline and 988, retrieved January 27, 2022, Read Article.

[12] Some relevant opinion articles that readers should also explore include:

  • “Rethinking Reactions to Stress: You can’t control the sources of your anxiety – only your response,” ABA Journal, (May 2019). Read Article

  • “Addiction in the Legal Profession,” Sunrise House, (February 2019). Read Article

  • “Attorney Suicide: What Every Lawyer Needs to Know,” ABA Journal, (January 2019). Read Article

  • “Lawyers, Judges at High Risk for Mental Health Issues,” The Daily Business Review, (January 2019). Read Article

  • “Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves?” CNN, (January 2014). Read Article

  • “The Depressed Lawyer. Why are so many lawyers so unhappy?” Psychology Today, (May 2011). Read Article


[13] I intend the terms “employer” and “employee” to be as inclusive as possible within our field: the courts, administrative agencies, executive branch/government agencies, law firms, law schools, and so forth.

370 Knollwood Street, Suite 600, Winston-Salem, NC 27103
Phone: (336) 722-6300  |  Fax: (336) 722-1993

3600 Glenwood Avenue, Suite 210, Raleigh, NC 27612
Phone: (919) 589-7985  |  Fax: (984) 263-0466

© 2022 Waldrep Wall Babcock & Bailey PLLC. All rights reserved. Legal Disclaimer.

  • LinkedIn