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Intervention: The benefits of stepping in with compassion

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Intervention

August 2018, on a late Thursday afternoon, I received a call asking me if I was available to come up and meet with a chief assistant state attorney.  I was an assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade County, Florida, handling mental health cases, so these requests were common.  I headed upstairs and found the chief there with 2 other staff members.

Not what I expected.

They told me that over the past few hours, while I had been in court covering for another ASA, there had been multiple discussions about me.  They were concerned about my mental health. She thought I should take some time off to “regroup”.

I was shocked, and embarrassed, but not surprised.  I had been struggling for some time with anxiety and had spoken with the employment attorney earlier in the summer about taking some time off.  Unfortunately, circumstances prevented the time off, my workload increased, and my mental health was steadily getting worse.  I was really trying to hold it together.  Her intervention was proof that I was completely unsuccessful.

I will always be grateful to the chief.  She made it clear to me that she was telling me to take the time off, but that I was not in any trouble, not fired, and that whenever I was ready to come back, I still had my job.  It was embarrassing enough to have to talk about my deteriorating mental health, but it would have been devastating to think that my career was in jeopardy.

So, I went home. I was home for five weeks.

That first day felt like a normal day off.  Nothing special other than I had permission to ignore work communications.  I took a mid-morning nap and relaxed.  I was planning at least two weeks off, so I wasn’t in any rush.

Day 2, I woke up with a horrible headache.  The headache lasted for 3 days.  Nothing I did got rid of it—water, Advil, sleep, bubble baths, chocolate—nothing worked.  When I spoke with my doctor later, she confirmed that the headache was likely the physical manifestation of stress release.  My body had been a bundle of anxiety and stress for so long that once I finally relaxed: massive headache.

For the next several weeks, I read, watched some TV, slept, meditated.  Slowly, I started to feel more like myself.

About Week 3, I stopped having nightmares.  What I didn’t tell anybody—not my doctor, my best friend, my family—was that every night for probably about two years, I was having nightmares.  I won’t get into details, but I now believe they were a product of the anxiety and stress that I was living under.  When the dreams stopped, I knew I was feeling better.

After five weeks, and a meeting with my doctor, I returned to work. During the time that I was off, I also applied to graduate programs in public health.  I wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted to leave my job, but having options helped.

I must be honest in saying that things were no better when I returned to work.  I went back to the same environment that I had left, complete with the same stressors, attitudes, and workload.  The difference was me.  I had almost broken, and I wasn’t going to let that happen again.

Because I was rested, things were pretty good for a while.  But then, about four months after I returned to work, I had a nightmare.  When it happened, I knew I needed to make a change.

So, I decided to leave my job and start my own law practice.  I knew that I was trading one type of stress for another, but I also knew that I couldn’t let myself get back to that dark place. I started making tentative plans to leave.

So, here’s where life gets funny.  In March 2019, just days after I made the decision to leave my job of (almost) 15 years, I received an e-mail from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, informing me that I had been accepted to a master’s program. I accepted the offer and am currently in my first semester getting my MS in SocioMedical Studies. And, I’m doing great.  I’m psychiatrically stable and happy and enjoying my experience.

I tell this story in the hopes that it will help you: law students, newly graduated, young lawyers.  Please do not follow my lead.  Please take care of yourself.  Pay attention to your behavior, your eating and sleeping habits, your moods.  And, if you see a change that concerns you, please do not hesitate to ask for help.

And, if you are the chief in this scenario: please do as she did.  Please talk to the person, kindly and with compassion, and tell them what you are seeing and that you want to help.  It’s not an easy conversation to have, but it is necessary.  Approach the person with kindness, compassion, and respect.  Make it clear that you aren’t judging, that you want to help, and the person is not “in trouble”. 

So, let’s help each other.  If you or someone in your life are exhibiting the following signs or symptoms, it may be time for intervention:

  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Unexplained crying or anger
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Changes in personality or attitude
  • Lack of interest in hobbies
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm

If you or someone you know needs help and you don’t know where to start, you can contact me at JMS@justmentalhealthsolu….  Make sure to let me know that you read this article. Let’s help each other.

Joanna Sandstrom Joanna Sandstrom has a BA from Miami University (Ohio) and a JD from American University Washington College of Law. After graduation, she moved to Miami and served as an Assistant State Attorney for exactly 15 years. She is currently enrolled in a master’s program in at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York.