OCBA UPDATE: Can't we just call it ... cancer?


If you hear a colleague has cancer, your face likely winces in a way that shows compassion, pity and concern. You may ask, "How bad is it?" The conversation often morphs into the course of treatment, the type of cancer, the location of the cancer in the body. You might ask if there is anything you can do.

Not so with conditions affecting emotional well-being or dependency. In this enlightened day and age, there is still an unconscionable stigma toward these maladies, despite the overwhelming suffering of people in our profession. Friends of those suffering are not showing up at their doors with casseroles, wearing colored ribbons, offering to drive their kids to school, or participating in walkathons. Depression, anxiety and addiction are rampant throughout our profession. Many of our partners, associates, judges and opposing counsel are languishing, some drowning and we largely ignore them.

In 2016, the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs, together with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, published the results of a study of 13,000 practicing attorneys. The statistics are shocking. 28 percent of lawyers struggle with depression. 19 percent struggle with anxiety. 23 percent struggle with stress. Between 21 and 36 percent qualify as "problem drinkers."1 This means that 336,000 practicing lawyers are suffering from depression today. Of those with depression, 60 percent also suffer from anxiety. The World Health Organization has labeled depression a global epidemic, with 10 percent of the population suffering with it. Lawyers are nearly 3.6 times more likely to have depression than the public. Is it the "chicken or the egg" that makes us so depressed? No one knows. Theories abound; it does not matter. The fact is, we suffer with depression more than most.

Take the time and look around next time you are in a room of lawyers and apply the math. Likely, several people in that room are struggling in silence. It appears the majority of those afflicted still believe that they should handle their struggles privately, in silence, and alone. They likely feel shame and work diligently to protect their image. Ours is not a profession that encourages the sharing of feelings. Lawyers do not want to reveal vulnerability to peers, partners, opposing counsel or clients. Our profession champions strength, fortitude, confidence, problem solving, self-reliance and strength. People of our stature should be able to "get over it," "snap out of it," or "pull ourselves up by our boot straps." Depression does not work that way. Depression is not a mood or a choice. It is an insidious disease and it does not go away without help.2

It is not just practicing attorneys dealing with these problems. A survey of 3,300 law students found that 17 percent suffered with depression, 14 percent had severe anxiety (23 percent had mild to moderate anxiety) and 6 percent reported suicidal thoughts in the past. Their alcohol consumption was similarly out of control. One-quarter of them were at clear risk for alcoholism and were recommended to undergo further screening.3

So what do you do if you suspect you are in the significant and substantial minority of lawyers experiencing depression, anxiety, or drug and/or alcohol overuse? Start with the internet. Learn about depression. Begin by making an appointment with your doctor for a physical. Most doctors are trained to screen for depression. Tell them the truth. They cannot tell anyone anyway so be honest.

There is help available. In fact, there is a movement to improve the well-being of lawyers. Recently, the ABA and other organizations started a national task force to address these grave issues. They have promulgated a "Well-Being Campaign Pledge" that law firms throughout the country are embracing. The pledge vows to:

- Provide enhanced and robust educational opportunities to attorneys and staff on topics related to well-being, mental health, and substance abuse;

- Disrupt the status quo of drinking-based events;

- Develop visible partnerships with outside resources committed to reducing substance use disorders and mental health distress in the profession;

- Provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources;

- Develop proactive policies and protocols to support assessment and treatment of substance use and mental health problems;

- Actively and consistently demonstrate that help-seeking and self-care are core cultural values; and

- Highlight the adoption of this well-being framework to attract and retain the best lawyers and staff.

Anne Brafford (J.D., MAPP, Ph.D. in progress) authored a treatise entitled, "The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change." It is a bountiful resource for those afflicted and those stakeholders at firms, associations or groups to educate themselves about the epidemic and take real, immediate and tangible steps.4 Additionally, there is a "Well-Being Toolkit," which can be used in conjunction with the treatise.5 There also are local sources for immediate help. The State Bar of Michigan has resources including the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program (LJAP).6

Importantly, there is no one way to approach someone you believe is suffering. There are no guidebooks just compassion, empathy and concern for your fellow professionals. The conversation will not be comfortable. It is easier to say nothing. However, your sincere inquiry may come at a time when that person is ready to share their struggles. Reach out. Ask. Then listen. You would do that if you heard they had cancer.



1P.R. Krill, R. Johnson, & L. Albert, "The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys," 10 J. ADDICTION MED. 46 (2016).

2Brian Cuban (@bcuban), "The Addicted Lawyer: Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow, and Redemption," Post Hill Press, 2017.

3J.M. Organ, D. Jaffe, & K. Bender, "Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns," 66 J. LEGAL EDUC. 116 (2016).

4Anne Brafford, author, www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf.

5Anne Brafford, author, www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/lawyer_assistance/ls_colap_well-being_toolkit_for_lawyers_legal_employers.authcheckdam.pdf.

6LJAP Helpline: 800-996-5522; see also National Suicide Prevention Helpline for immediate help: 800-273-8255; National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov.


James J. Parks, Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss PC, is the 86th president of the Oakland County Bar Association.

Published: Mon, Jan 21, 2019


  1. No comments
Sign in to post a comment »