June 20, 2019

Sobering Statistics — Prevalence of Alcohol Use and Mental Health Issues Among Lawyers

COLAPEditor’s Note: If you are or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, please contact COLAP for confidential assistance at (303) 986-3345 or (855) 208-1168. 

The legal profession is noble indeed. Lawyers are tasked with holding high standards of integrity while zealously advocating for their clients, often during the worst experience of their clients’ lives. Lawyers must maintain competence, diligence, truthfulness, and candor. Biglaw attorneys must be rainmakers as they work grueling hours in a high-stakes environment. Solo and small firm attorneys must also worry about bringing in and keeping clients, but they also have office management duties. In-house counsel must be knowledgeable about many different areas of the law so they can provide competent representation on any issue their business may face. Prosecutors balance heavy caseloads while trying to bring justice to grieving victims. Defense attorneys sometimes face literal life-or-death situations with their clients. The law is not a profession for the faint of heart. And it shows—stories of lawyer suicides are so common it sparked a CNN report, “Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves?” The South Carolina Bar Association’s South Carolina Lawyer published “The Lawyer’s Epidemic: Depression, Suicide, and Substance Abuse.” Patrick Krill wrote a compelling article for “The Hennepin Lawyer” called “Legally Intoxicated: The Impacts and Implications of Substance Abuse in the Practice of Law,” describing one fictional partner’s descent into substance abuse but also describing situations that are all-too familiar for many lawyers.

A new study from the Hazelton Betty Ford Foundation revealed alarming rates of substance abuse and mental health disorders among attorneys. Nearly 13,000 legal professionals responded to an anonymous survey posted by bar associations across the country. Of the respondents, 53.4 percent were men and 46.5 percent were women. Age was measured in 10-year increments beginning with under 30 and ending with 70 and older, and respondents were fairly evenly divided through the age groups, with the fewest responses from the 70+ attorneys and the second fewest from the under-30s. Marital status and race/ethnicity were also considered; the vast majority of participants were white/Caucasian (91.3 percent) and married (70.2 percent). Professional characteristics, including work environment, position in firm, hours per week, and whether litigation was involved, were also examined. Participants self-reported on alcohol and substance use, and 84.1 percent reported using alcohol in the past 12 months.

The study included a 10-item self-report test called the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), which is used to screen for hazardous use, harmful use, and potential alcohol dependence. An alarming 20.6 percent of reporting attorneys had positive AUDIT screens, as compared to 11.8 percent for a broad, highly educated workforce and 15 percent for physicians. The youngest attorneys were the most likely to report problem drinking—31.9 percent of the under-30 attorneys and 25.1 percent of attorneys aged 31-40 had positive AUDIT screens, with the percentages tapering off for each age segment. Similarly, attorneys in practice 10 years or less reported the highest rates of problem drinking—28.1 percent of new attorneys had positive AUDIT scores, with percentages diminishing in each age segment. The results were fairly static across all types of firms; private firms and bar administration had the highest rate of positive AUDIT screens but solos, in-house (government), in-house (corporate), and law schools were not far behind. Junior associates were most likely to screen positive for problem drinking, and senior partners were least likely.

The study also found alarmingly high percentages of depression and anxiety among responding attorneys. Of the attorneys surveyed, 28 percent experienced mild or higher levels of depression, 19 percent experienced mild or higher levels of anxiety, and 23 percent experienced mild or higher levels of stress as measured on the DASS-21 scale. Over 60 percent of the attorneys surveyed reported having experienced anxiety at some point in their career, and 45.7 reported having experienced depression. Suicidal thoughts and actions were also described, with 11.5 percent of responding attorneys admitting they had had suicidal thoughts at some point in their careers and 2.9 percent admitting self-injurious behaviors. The study noted significantly higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression among those screening positive for problematic alcohol use, and those with stress, anxiety, and depression scores within the normal range endorsed significantly fewer problematic alcohol behaviors. The study also remarked that alcohol can cause mental health issues, and mental health issues can often lead people to self-medicate with alcohol, so the two issues frequently co-exist.

Among all respondents, the same barriers to treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders were raised: not wanting others to find out they needed help and concerns about privacy and confidentiality. However, those who sought treatment in programs designed for legal professionals reported significantly lower AUDIT scores than those who attended programs not tailored to legal professionals.

Colorado has a lawyer assistance program tailored for legal professionals, appropriately named the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program or COLAP. COLAP is completely confidential, and in fact Colorado Supreme Court Rule 254 establishing COLAP provides that none of the information gathered by COLAP can be released without a signed release. COLAP’s mission is to protect the interests of clients, litigants, and the general public by educating the bench, bar, and law schools regarding the causes of and remedies for impairments affecting members of the legal profession, and to provide confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, and law students who suffer from physical or mental health issues, or other impairments that affect their ability to be productive members of the profession. As COLAP’s website informs, “Getting help won’t sabotage your career, but not getting help can!”

If you are among the one out of every five attorneys who struggles with problematic alcohol use, or the one-in-four attorneys who is experiencing depression, please do not struggle in silence. Contact COLAP or your personal physician today.

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