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Breaking the Habit–A Mental Health Analysis By A Young Lawyer

By Brian M. Andino

Disclaimer: This article is not a professional study on attorney mental health issues, but rather what this minority author has learned/observed about mental health wellness as a minority lawyer since the start of practicing law, including throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Welcome to Summer 2022! The months when barbecues with family and friends start back up and the days become longer, with thoughts and hopes of good times ahead. However, as we all know, these long days are not always fun times for everyone. May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. Anyone and everyone is susceptible to mental health issues, including: addiction, anxiety, depression and suicide. Our profession is not exempt from those same issues. As a matter of fact, lawyers experience these challenges to their physical, mental and professional well-being at rates significantly higher than the general public. [1]

In 2014, 15 law schools participated in the Survey of Law School Well-Being, which was designed to examine alcohol, drug and mental health issues among law students. [2] The results found that:

1. 25 percent of law students were at risk for alcoholism.
2. 17 percent of law students suffered from depression.
3. 37 percent of law students reported mild to severe anxiety.
4. Six percent of law students reported having suicidal thoughts in the last year of law school. [3]

That same study’s results did not improve for practicing lawyers who responded to the survey. The same survey asked 13,000 working lawyers to respond to questions regarding alcoholism, drug use, and mental health issues, and those results found that:

1. 28 percent of lawyers suffered from depression.
2. 19 percent of lawyers had severe anxiety.
3. 11.4 percent of lawyers had suicidal thoughts in the preceding year. [4]

One can only imagine how those figures might have changed since February and March 2020, when the world shut down due to COVID-19.

As a Latino, I grew up in a home where feelings such as depression and anxiety were usually scoffed at; never mind any thoughts of suicide, which would land you a beating if those feelings ever became voiced, or worse, public. Apparently, my upbringing was common among many of my minority friends’ families as well. As kids and teenagers, and clearly not knowing any better due to ignorance, we would scoff at our friends who would go to therapy for their depression or other mental health issues. A common theme that we were raised with was that psychologists were for “rich people” who didn’t know how else to spend their money.

Boy, were we wrong! Twenty years later, I can truly see the error in our ways of thinking. Problems such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and thoughts of suicide are universal, not just for rich people. While in law school, and even in undergrad, I saw that these mental health issues applied to anyone and everyone. Again, having come from my (admittedly ignorant) upbringing, I couldn’t show any weakness around finals time or when studying for the bar. At our law school happy hours or other functions, I and my colleagues in the Hispanic Law Students Association and Black Law Students Association all complained of stress, but I can always feel myself stopping short of admitting that I had anxiety or any other issues. I could sense that I was not alone in that regard, and years later I came to find out that depression and thoughts of suicide also ran rampant among my colleagues. Again, I don’t know if it was a universal thought among minority families, but we could not show weakness to anyone and had to power on through with a smile on our face.

As we graduated, so too did our stressors. Stress over final exams became stress over having a job out of law school, passing the bar exam, billable hours, building books of business, or repaying law school loans. It seems that as we got older, stress was anywhere and everywhere. However, as a minority, I felt that I couldn’t let my anxiety show because of the stigma associated with not being able to handle my stress and letting it leave me feeling weak. As a minority in a predominantly Caucasian work environment, I always felt I had to work longer and harder than my co-workers because I had to “prove myself” on a daily basis. I “had to” show that my public school education was equal to (if not better than) their private school educations. Again, I came to learn that this was a sentiment shared by the other racial and gender minorities in my office. In my eyes, being “burnt out” was a badge of honor
rather than a cause for concern.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with a therapist in preparation for this article — Amanda Landry, LMHC, CAP, NCC, of Caring Therapists of Broward. [5] While speaking with Ms. Landry, I learned that her office sees over 2,000 sessions per month, and less than 10 percent of those sessions are with attorneys. When I asked what the common complaints were for seeking mental health help, Ms. Landry advised that attorneys commonly suffer from anxiety, substance abuse or addiction, and relationship problems. The same stressors that I, and my colleagues, experience are stressors that are all too common in our profession. Many attorneys that her practice had seen for their issues end up letting go of their self-care, whether it is physical exercise, poor dieting habits, mental and emotional suppression, etc.

When I asked why she thought there is still this stigma surrounding mental health issues and seeking help, Ms. Landry told me that she recently attended a forum where attorneys explained why they believe the stigma exists. I was surprised to learn that the feelings regarding mental health awareness are prevalent in our profession. I learned that attorneys are concerned about their public image and not being able to “deal” with their problems. Additionally, to seek out a judgeship, there is a topic of discussion regarding any mental health history. Naturally, attorneys who aspire to be a judge one day are afraid of having a “tainted record” regarding their mental health or substance abuse. This, in turn, leads to circling back to the root problem, being unable to freely express yourself to others for fear of being, forgive the pun, judged.

So here is what I learned: Stress is common, it is a part of life. Six years ago, if someone asked me to express feelings of frustration with work and life, I would say that I would just “deal with it.” However, I learned everyone responds to stress in different ways. It doesn’t make someone any stronger or weaker than the next person dealing with the same (or even different) stressors. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to mental health issues. “Different strokes for different folks” is a saying that comes to mind.

We, as attorneys, have to find ways to break the stigma surrounding mental health and wellness and speak up for ourselves and others dealing with mental health issues. If you are depressed, say something! If you are experiencing anxiety, say something! If you are dealing with alcohol or substance abuse issues, say something! Finally, if you are dealing with thoughts of suicide, please, please, please say something. We are all human, and there is nothing wrong with us for experiencing these feelings. Again, we don’t need to play catch-up to any colleagues, or even to ourselves. We need to live life one day at a time at our own pace.

If you are experiencing any of the above, reach out to a psychologist, mental health counselor, mental health and wellness coach, etc. The Florida Bar has hotlines available at our disposal for these referral services. If you are feeling overwhelmed by work, take a mental health day and run some errands that you can’t do over the weekend. If you have time, take the time to read a book or do some yoga or mindfulness meditation. If you need to exercise, take that 30-minute walk or run. If you don’t have the time for that, do some jumping jacks between the commercial break of your favorite show. Do and say something to be the best possible version of yourself you can be for your clients, for your firm, and most importantly: for yourself. I can definitely see this following quote coming from Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister: “A wise man once said, ‘You cannot pour from an empty cup.’” So be sure to make “your cup runneth over” with feelings absent of self-loathing and doubt. Love yourself, and above all, take the time to lie in a field and smell some freshly cut grass.

BRIAN M. ANDINO is a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney with the law offices of Gerson & Schwartz in Coral Gables, Florida. His areas of practice include representing victims harmed by the negligence of others in the fields of maritime and admiralty law, catastrophic injury, negligent security, and wrongful death. Prior to joining Gerson & Schwartz, Mr. Andino was an assistant state attorney for the Broward County State Attorney’s Office, where he prosecuted capital crimes on behalf of victims of sexual battery, child molestation, and other capital offenses. In his spare time, Mr. Andino enjoys running, meditation, volunteer work, and spending time with his family. They particularly enjoy the fall season when they can cheer on the University of Florida Gators and New York Football Giants.

Published in the Florida Justice Association May/June 2022 Journal. Learn more.

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