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Mental health warning signs that legal professionals should not ignore

mental health warning signs that no legal professional should ignore

We all experience stress at work and in our everyday lives. Feeling stressed isn’t a major red flag, but it can go too far. There are some serious mental health warning signs that you should never ignore.

Problems relating to mental health and substance abuse are sadly ubiquitous to the legal profession:


In studies regarding lawyers and substance abuse, 75% of attorneys skip the questions regarding drug use, which suggests there might be a problem there as well.

Other surveys reveal that 69% of attorneys report experiencing mental ill-health in the past 12 months.

Clearly, we have a crisis on our hands.

While the overall societal stigmas surrounding mental health problems are decreasing, lawyers continue to show a grave reluctance to seek help. What can be done to improve the situation?

Well, the old cliché holds true: the first step to solving a problem is admitting that the problem exists.

That’s why today we’re focusing on the mental health warning signs that no legal professional should ignore. Read on to see if you recognize some of these signs in yourself or others you care about, and, if so, please check out the resources at the end of this article for ways you can seek help.

Signs and symptoms of depression

There are two main types of depression: situational and clinical.

As the name suggests, situational depression tends to arise in response to challenging situations like divorce or caring for a sick relative. While situational depression can be serious and require treatment, it may also be transitory in nature.

Clinical depression, on the other hand, is a chronic medical condition. It tends to interfere with daily life, and will almost certainly require some sort of intervention.

Signs of clinical depression vary widely, but may include:

  • Inability to focus or concentrate on work
  • Loss of interest in activities that used to bring great pleasure
  • Feelings of sadness and hopelessness, sometimes culminating in suicidal thoughts
  • Anger or extreme mood swings
  • Inability to overcome or stop thinking about past failures
  • Sleep disturbances and lack of energy
  • Inexplicable pains or other health problems
  • Overwhelming feelings of sadness that interfere with daily life


Over time, clinical depression can interfere with your friendships, relationships, work life, and other social activities.

If you begin to experience any of these symptoms or other impacts of depression, it’s a good idea to start journaling about your experiences so you can communicate your condition to a therapist or other mental health professional.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety

Much like depression, anxiety can be experienced in a variety of ways.

It is certainly not uncommon for attorneys and other legal professionals to feel the impact of looming deadlines, billable hour pressure, or other job-related stress. Some anxious feelings are normal when you’re under a time crunch.

Having an anxiety disorder, however, is something else altogether. Anxiety disorders are characterized by:

  • Intense and persistent worrying
  • Panic attacks (i.e., sudden onset feelings of intense fear or terror)
  • Phobias
  • Inability to go places that stimulate panic (e.g., elevators or public places)
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating, trembling, and shaking
  • Inability to sleep
  • Gastrointestinal problems


Anxiety becomes problematic when you can no longer control it or do things to keep it at bay.

An anxiety disorder generally becomes diagnosable when symptoms persist for six months or more. Like depression, anxiety is considered a major problem when it begins interfering with your everyday activities.

Signs and symptoms of substance use disorder

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a serious problem among attorneys. Generally speaking, SUD includes the overuse of alcohol as well as other drugs like marijuana, cocaine, or opiates.

SUD often begins innocently for many legal professionals — attending firm happy hours a couple of times a week or accepting an offer for a line of cocaine during a late night work session.

In some cases, however, those innocent beginnings can lead to wholesale problems.

Symptoms of SUD include:

  • Persistently thinking about when and how you can next use the substance
  • Spending inordinate amounts of money on the substance
  • Hiding your use (or the frequency of use) from others
  • Needing more and more of the substance in order to get the same effect
  • Ignoring things like family, work, or social commitments in order to use
  • Inability to stop using or experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop using
  • Engaging in risky behavior (such as driving drunk or using illegal substances in public settings)


Over time, your colleagues may catch on to your substance abuse. This can lead to a job loss or, in extreme cases, a loss of your professional license.

Resources for finding help

Fortunately, there are many resources available for fighting depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder. Here are some of the best:

Lawyer-specific resources:

As noted above, each of these issues has a distinct impact on the legal community.

Consequently, each state bar has set up “Lawyer Assistance Programs” (LAP) to help our industry.

According to the American Bar Association, “Lawyer Assistance Programs provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers and law students who are facing substance use disorders or mental health issues.”

Here’s a website that provides links to each state’s LAP.

Other resources:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA offers a “free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.”

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI is “the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.”

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). ADAA seeks to help those affected by anxiety and depression. They have programs providing education, resources, and support for people who need treatment options.

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly, National Suicide Prevention Hotline). If you are contemplating suicide, simply dial “988” for immediate help.

Remember, if you or someone you love is suffering from depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, there are people out there who really want to help.

Social perception about mental health treatment is far more positive than ever before, and seeking treatment can save both your career and your life. It can be difficult to take that first step, but even if you feel like your mental health warning signs aren’t severe, it’s worth checking out the available resources, just in case.

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