Lawyers face drinking and mental health concerns
Substance use and other mental health concerns among lawyers have received greater attention in recent years, but important questions remain. An article published in February 2016 by the Journal of Addictive Medicine attempts to address some of these questions. The article, “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” is based on an empirical study funded by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. The study was commissioned to measure the prevalence of substance use and other mental health concerns among lawyers, their utilization of treatment services, and what barriers exist between lawyers and the services they may need.
Just over 20 percent of the participants scored at a level consistent with problematic drinking habits as compared to just over 11 percent of a similarly educated workforce.
A sample of 12,825 practicing lawyers completed surveys that assessed alcohol use, drug use as well as symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. (The study participants were volunteers who were recruited through emails and news postings. As such, they were not randomly selected creating a potential selection bias.) The study not only found substantial rates of behavioral health problems among the lawyers responding, but also that lawyers experience problematic drinking that is harmful, hazardous, and otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations. More specifically, just over 20 percent (Table 1) of the participants scored at a level consistent with problematic drinking habits as compared to just over 11 percent of a similarly educated workforce. A significant percent of the lawyer participants (Table 2) also experienced mild or higher levels of depression (28 percent), anxiety (19 percent), and stress (23 percent).
Importantly, the study found that problematic drinking and other mental health concerns among lawyers have a strong association with personal and professional characteristics, including age, gender, years in practice, position within a firm, and overall work environment. Men, younger participants, those working in the field for a shorter duration, lawyers working in private firms, and junior associates all displayed higher proportions of positive screens for drinking problems as compared to the wider sample. White men had significantly higher levels of depression. Women were found to have higher levels of anxiety and stress.
The article stresses that substance use and other mental health concerns among lawyers are relevant not only to those in the legal profession, but all those in need of legal assistance. The article cautions the “potential for harm that attorney impairment poses to the struggling individuals themselves, and to our communities, government, economy, and society.”
Substance use and mental health concerns among lawyers are relevant not only to those in the legal profession, but all those in need of legal assistance.
The article concludes that “the data underscore the need for greater resources for lawyer assistance programs, and also the expansion of available attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions.” It stresses the need for greater education focused on prevention, better publication of the confidential nature of lawyer assistance programs, and public awareness campaigns within the profession with the goal of overcoming “the pervasive stigma surrounding substance abuse disorders and mental health concerns.” These efforts should be complemented by efforts to develop a better understanding of the causes of lawyers’ substance use and other mental health concerns, particularly given the apparent relationship between personal and professional characteristics and rates of problematic drinking, depression, anxiety, and stress.