Oct. 10 is World Mental Health Day (WMH Day), and this year’s theme is “Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World.” Initiated by the World Federation for Mental Health, WMH Day is officially observed, worldwide, each year on Oct. 10 and focuses on the prevention, treatment, and destigmatizing of mental and emotional disorders. On this WMH Day, the legal profession should give particular focus to the mental health of young lawyers.
The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being commissioned by the American Bar Association (ABA) has reported alarming numbers of law students experiencing chronic stress, depression, anxiety, and alcohol and substance abuse. The task force found that “to be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer.” Therefore, a call to action is necessary to protect young adults entering the legal profession from stress-induced mental health issues and fearing any stigma associated with seeking help.
According to a recent article by the JD Journal, “depression and suicide emerge in law students at a higher rate than any other field but the causes and ways of preventing it are not that simple to fix.” The JD Journal further reported that approximately 96 percent of law students experience extreme stress, and that upon graduation, approximately 40 percent will have depression (i.e., nearly half of all young lawyers entering the legal profession)—most of which have never sought any help or treatment.
In another recent study, the ABA task force reported that, out of 3,300 law students surveyed, 17 percent experienced depression; 14 percent experienced severe depression, and 23 percent experienced mild to moderate anxiety; 43 percent reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks; and 25 percent were at risk for alcoholism.
After graduation, and already vulnerable to stress-induced mental disorders, these young adults are thrust into a new, high-stress, fast-paced, and often adversarial environment. They are expected (and presumed in Florida) to be competent and practice ready, despite their lack of experience, training or proper guidance. At the same time, they are adjusting to a new stage of life, new schedule, and much more responsibility and pressure. As humans, a drastic change may lead to stress and anxiety.
Languishing mental health problems that began in law school can snowball for young associates. A study by the ABA and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that within the first 10 years of practice, younger lawyers working in private firms experience the highest rates of depression and problem drinking. Young lawyers are often expected to “pay their dues,” which often means long hours, essentially being accessible 24/7, and to put work first. Many new lawyers suffer in silence with financial stress, especially as student loan payments come due. Many report feeling trapped by their financial debt despite their unhappiness, which causes further stress, anxiety and depression.
Our legal profession, and the public’s trust in the profession, depends on the next generation of lawyers. Sweeping depression under the rug has only resulted in a profession where approximately one in three lawyers have a drinking problem, depression or both; one in four struggles with stress; and one in five struggles with anxiety. The “sink or swim” approach to young lawyers has, at best, shown that those who appeared to be swimming are merely just sinking slower, struggling to remain afloat, and are at risk for drowning.