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Getting to the other side of mental health in the legal profession

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Hushed Voices

As ABA Law Student Mental Health Day comes to us yet again, a journal entry by a 2L in my Legal Profession class offers hope: 

All of my friends, siblings, and peers talk about mental health. We have all been affected. We are unfiltered, empathetic, and we check in. How could we not? We are now old enough to have had experienced life. As Susan David says,“Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.” Most people up the generational ladder speak of mental health in hushed, somber, and sheltered voices. I think it’s a subconscious denial.

Whether it’s depression, OCD, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar I or II, ADHD, or any number of anxiety disorders . . .  everyone struggles. Everyone loves someone who struggles. Perpetuating an idea that you should struggle internally in silence is counterproductive. It’s time to be a nonjudgmental sounding board, to encourage people to look inward and get help, to share and fight the stigma.  

Hushed, somber, and sheltered voices? I know those voices well. In my 30s, when I struggled with a debilitating depression, I confided in an older member of my family. I broke my silence and told her that I was considering seeing a doctor or a therapist. My well-intentioned relative quietly urged me to just reflect on “all the positive” in my life and to have faith that I would get through this brief chapter.  The response crushed me, yet I decided to see a doctor and a therapist. (Nearly 20 years have passed since that day. Fortunately, this family member now believes in mental health treatment and has benefitted greatly from counseling.) 

Everyone struggles.  “Everyone” includes lawyers. The stereotype of the tough lawyer who takes other people’s problems in stride without flinching or emoting serves no one. Our profession is ready for new role models. Lawyers who acknowledge their humanity.  Lawyers who see and understand that vulnerability is a bridge to empathy and connection.  Lawyers who know when to ask for help.  

Check in.  Be a nonjudgmental sounding board. Start by checking in with yourself. When was the last time you had (and enjoyed) a decent meal?  How often do you forgo the sleep that your body craves?  How many nights have you simply been unable to fall asleep?  When did you last exercise for even a few minutes?  When was your last meaningful conversation with a friend?  Have you experienced moments of joy in the last week (or two)? 

Next, check in with one or two people in your life. Ask them same questions. And when you ask how they’re doing, be sure to pause and wait for their response.  Resist the urge to interrupt or finish their sentences.  Listen to their words, the tone of their voice, and their body language. 

Get help.  If you or someone you care about is struggling, seeking help is the strongest course of action.  In your law school, your dean of students, a faculty member, or a peer mentor can be helpful resources.  The counseling office at your college or university likely offers assistance through remote therapy sessions.  And Lawyers Assistance Programs in many states are holding confidential support groups for law students. 

Your struggles will not define you.  Individuals can and do work through depression, anxiety, stress, and even self-destructive patterns. And they come out on the other side—more resilient,  healthier, and fulfilled.  

Rosario Lozada Rosario Lozada is the chair-elect of the Association of American Law Schools’ Section on Balance in Legal Education and she teaches at the Florida International University College of Law. Lozada is an advocate and student of well-being in the profession. She is training in mindfulness facilitation with the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.