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Overdue Calls for Help Red Flag for Lawyer Well-Being Advocates

Feb. 1, 2021, 9:45 AM

Lawyer mental health assistance groups expect a rebound in calls for help later this year after attorney psychological well-being appeared to take a back seat to other aspects of life upended by the pandemic.

Calls to some helplines actually fell in 2020—more than 20% for groups in Pennsylvania and Minnesota—despite expectations that a profession known for heightened anxiety, depression, and substance abuse would trigger explosive demand if virus fallout worsened.

“The Covid dip was real,” said Diana Uchiyama, executive director of Illinois’ Lawyers’ Assistance Program. She expects “a steady level” of outreach when things normalize.

Experts say lawyers may have deprioritized seeking help as the virus disrupted so many aspects of life. Virtual assistance programs may have helped some avoid crisis, but many others overwhelmed and made to feel isolated by remote work didn’t seek help either in large numbers.

Pandemic, Work Stress

Surveys conducted last summer found people in general working remotely—as many lawyers are—reported burnout. Nearly half experienced stress, anxiety or depression, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in December. “The pandemic has been disproportionately wearing on women in the workforce,” Kaiser said.

Attorneys can be susceptible to emotional problems due partly to their personalities and dispositions, high professional demands, and the historical lack of prioritization of mental health issues within legal institutions, Patrick Krill, an expert on attorney addiction and mental health, has told Bloomberg Law.

“There is no reason to think that lawyers would somehow be exempt from those broader trends when, as a population, lawyers entered 2020 with a heightened prevalence of mental health problems and a lot more built-in risk factors for those problems,” Krill said. Lawyers, in fact, “are experiencing more stress and also more hazardous drinking.”

Virtual Help, Law Students Reach Out

Loretta Olesky, the deputy director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, noted that 2019 was a “huge year” for client calls. “We haven’t come close to those numbers” in 2020, she said despite the health crisis and an economic disruption that has included legal industry layoffs, lost business, and pay cuts.

Other groups reported similar declines. Helpline volume of 504 callers for 2020 was 22% lower compared to the year-ago period, reports Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania, a non-profit that helps members of the legal community struggling with mental health or substance abuse. Minnesota’s Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers saw a dip of more than 25%.

New alternatives explain, in part, why call volumes fell. Web-based assistance programs kicked into gear during the pandemic and they’ve been well attended. It’s been a particularly beneficial for people in rural areas and those who can’t travel.

Numbers for remote programs are “higher than ever,” said Jim Leffler, clinical director for the Virginia Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program. Oleksy said participation and openness has been “amazing.”

Pennsylvania’s LCL reports reaching a record in-state audience of 15,270, a 27% increase over 2019, via its programs, most of which were virtual.

Eileen Travis, executive director of the New York City Bar’s lawyer assistance program, said existing clients have flocked to online offerings like AA, yoga classes, and general support groups.

There are signs some law students are being more aggressive about seeking assistance. They’re asking for help in record numbers, said Laurie Besden, the executive director of the Pennsylvania lawyers’ group. “Law students aren’t afraid to ask for help,” she said of the early intervention. “This is a very promising sign for the legal profession.”

Data shows that younger lawyers are at the highest risk for mental health and substance abuse problems.

Wellness Sidelined, Cases Serious

Many practicing attorneys, however, haven’t made professional wellness a priority as they focused on basic needs during the pandemic, the Pennsylvania group found.

“The need for physical safety, shelter, food, employment, financial security in the face of shutdowns, remote work mandates and an unknown virus became the primary focus of most individuals.” the group said in its 2020 annual report. “Needs like wellness, mental health, social needs and self-actualization became the lowest priority for many people and may remain so well into 2021.”

Moreover, Krill said lawyer assistance programs commonly get clients via referrals. “Often, the call is not initiated by the person with a mental health or substance use problem, but rather their employer, colleague, or a judge,” he said.

Uchiyama added that “addiction waits for moments like this, when there’s a lack of connectedness.”

The Pennsylvania group also noted that shutdowns and quarantines led some to believe it wasn’t safe to seek care, and said residential and outpatient treatment cases fell nationwide.

While there have been fewer new calls for help, those coming in more frequently involve people who are worse off, according to statistics from a handful of states.

In Virginia, there were eight “acute” cases in which callers were referred to inpatient care from September through November alone, said Leffler. There were seven for the entire annual period ending last June.

Legal assistance staff for the Pennsylvania lawyer’s group provided “urgent services and assistance” to 37 callers after hours. This included same-day inpatient detox and treatment admissions.

It’s “the new norm” to be seeing more serious cases, said Amber Hanna, program coordinator for the West Virginia State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program.

Joan Bibelhausen, executive director of the Minnesota group, believes the jump in severe cases is due to delays in seeking help.

Possibly Jarring

Looking ahead, assistance groups predict it will take until late 2021 at the earliest to gauge the scope of the lawyer well-being problems caused by the pandemic. This includes identifying those who’ve suffered in silence for a year or more.

Bibelhausen and other assistance figures believe that accumulated stress combined with emerging from remote work, including a return to offices, is going to be jarring for a number of attorneys.

“It might be harder at first to put the pieces back in place,” Bibelhausen said, adding that she expects more serious cases to level off as normalcy returns.

The Pennsylvania group suggests a possible spike in alcohol issues among attorneys once the pandemic begins to fade. Its report noted a decrease in diagnosed drinking-related disorders for 2020, but is skeptical that’s what’s really going on because alcohol problems tend to evolve slowly.

“Going back to work will present a whole new set of challenges,” said Besden, noting that there’s always a way out. “Recovery is possible.”

Other resources for help:

American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan in Washington at mstanzione@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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