National Suicide Awareness Month – For Bar Applicants and New Lawyers
This year has been a year of unprecedented stress for students in law school, graduates, and new lawyers. If you feel overwhelmed and would like help, but afraid of repercussions to your license or your career, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call me at (305) 669-2822. No judgment – just free advice from a disability rights lawyer with over 20 years of experience in assisting people to be treated fairly and without stigma.
September is National Suicide Awareness Month, and it has a deeper meaning this year than before. The purpose of Suicide Prevention Month is to raise awareness and connect individuals to the tools and resources that are available. As a society, we are in the midst of social upheaval, economic downturn and a pandemic with almost 200,000 Americans dead. The legal profession has maintained a facade of normalcy, even though we have been similarly affected in our day to day lives. Our cases have been indefinitely delayed, and the practice has been transformed by telecommuting and competing time needs from illness to homeschooling.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34 and the fourth leading cause of death for people 35-54 and 46% of people who die by suicide had a diagnosed mental health condition. As to professions, lawyers rank 4th in suicides, and 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.
During the best economic times, law students and young lawyer have suffered from disproportionately high levels of mental health disorders and substance abuse issues. According to a survey done by the Young Lawyers Division of the Florida Bar, 62% of young lawyers suffered from anxiety or depression or both where it has lasted for more than four weeks or have substantially impacted their job. Furthermore, the American Bar Association survey of law schools found that a quarter of all law students were at significant risk for an alcohol use disorder, and a significant amount used prescription medication (with or without a prescription) to handle stress or anxiety. If this is the state of our mental health and wellness during the best of times, it is difficult to imagine the current state of mental health and wellness for aspiring and new lawyers.
Over the past three months, I have heard from many aspiring lawyers and the burdens that they have faced just to become a member of my profession. I have also heard about advice provided by counselors from law schools that cautioned graduates from doing anything that would make the Florida Board of Bar Examiners question one’s mental fitness to become a lawyer. As a disability rights lawyer, this makes me see red. So, this is my advice:
- Get help. Your mental health is your number one priority, and the ability to have techniques to handle stress is a great quality for an effective lawyer.
- All mental disorders do not need to be reported. The only mental disorders that need to be disclosed to the Florida Board of Bar Examiners are psychotic disorders. such as Schizophrenia, and certain mood disorders such as Bipolar Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder with suicidal ideations that could impair an applicant’s ability to practice law.
- If you do seek alcohol or substance abuse treatment, or seek help for suicidal ideations, ensure that your treating mental health provider keeps detailed records regarding the scope and goals of your treatment. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners will review the records, and may have their expert review and evaluate and second guess the treatment that you receive, and may even require some monitoring in a conditional admission, but it should not prevent you from becoming a lawyer.
Currently, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners have submitted a Petition to the Florida Supreme Court to expand their investigative practices regarding mental health disorders and substance abuse. Disability Rights Florida and Disability Independence Group submitted a comment attempting to limit the scope of the investigation to otherwise disqualifying conduct, and not just the presence of a substance use disorder or mental health disorder. Also, we filed the decision of the U.S. District Court in Kentucky excoriating the Kentucky Supreme Court for its bar examiners from using help-seeking behaviors against bar applicants.
This is also no different from new lawyers who need assistance as well. The Americans with Disabilities Act covers employers with more than 15 employees, and many county ordinances similar to the ADA cover employers with over five employees. Each of these employers cannot subject an employee to an adverse employment action if that person seeks help for mental health or substance abuse treatment. In addition, such discriminatory behavior could also violate Rule 408.4(d) of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar.
- For employers with more than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius and if the employee has been employed for over one year, the employee will be able to have 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
- Depending on whether it is an undue burden for the employer, an employer covered under the ADA may be required to provide leave or a modified schedule for an employee as a reasonable accommodation to obtain mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment.
- Retaliation for engaging in help-seeking behaviors is unlawful.
All aspects of our profession should take an active role in mental health suicide prevention. This should be a focus from the admission standards of the Florida Bar to internal firm culture. Law firms should eradicate this stigma and to make wellness a part of their overall firm culture by making lawyers and staff aware of mental health services and benefits available through their health insurance coverage, so they can be accessed easily if needed. Especially during this time of upheaval, there needs to be conversation within each firm regarding mental health, resources available and a person with authority at the firm who could be approached if there is a crisis.