American Lawyers: Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns


We often don’t consider the struggles for legal professionals because when we think of a lawyer, we think of someone who is intelligent, outspoken, and straight-forward. However, lawyers’ problems with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse can be more severe than many of us realize. On top of long hours, moral dilemmas at work, and pressure to perform in the courtroom, many lawyers spend countless sleepless nights away from their families. All of these things and more can contribute to poor mental health, increased substance abuse, and general unease.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse in Lawyers

The ALM Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey found that over 30% of more than 3,800 respondents felt that they were depressed. It also found that over 60% feel as though they have anxiety, and around 10% feel they may have an alcohol problem. An astounding 2.8% also felt that they have a problem with drugs.

The report found that many of the lawyers attributed their mental health concerns to their jobs. 73% said yes when asked whether their work environment was a significant cause of mental health issues. Unsurprisingly, 74% of the respondents believed that their profession had had a negative effect on their mental health over time.

These significant findings demonstrate that lawyers and law firms need to take mental health into consideration.

Mental health is something that we as a nation have been open about only in recent years, so it’s important to consider the fact that lawyers are now feeling more open about giving their answers to these surveys. In the past, lawyers may not have felt that they knew enough about mental health or did not want to report on their own state of emotional health.

As a result of poor mental health and issues with stress, depression, and anxiety, many lawyers are turning to drugs and alcohol. The survey reported that nearly one-third of respondents said that they had increased their drug or alcohol use as a direct result of their profession and work environment.

Many respondents also admitted to dealing with stress with drugs and/or alcohol.

Even worse, nearly 18% of respondents said that they had contemplated suicide during their legal career because of their work environment.

It’s also important to note that in any survey, especially in those dealing with mental health, respondents may not be able to diagnose their own mental health issues, and we’re still likely to see under-reported substance abuse. Even so, the numbers of the survey are clear and suggest that those in the legal industry are discussing their mental health issues more openly with one another.

The Legal Industry and Mental Health Issues

There are a number of different reasons why those within the legal industry may have mental health issues. These reasons include but are not limited to:

Poor Sleep Quality

Poor sleep quality and lack of sleep could be both a sign of mental illness and a factor in making an underlying mental health issue much worse.

We all know the physical effects lack of sleep can have on an individual, like lethargy and headaches. However, full cycles of deep, restorative sleep are necessary in regulating our emotions, preserving cognitive function, and keeping our judgments balanced.

Lawyers are often required to pull long nights at the office or meet a certain amount of billable hours, causing them to sacrifice sleep. Sleep can also be impacted by anxious ruminations related to upcoming court hearings or trials. This can lead to a higher risk of developing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Inability to Disconnect

The inability to disconnect from work can cause many people stress. Often those with jobs that allow them to come home and focus on self-care or family time report fewer mental health issues because they’re able to get away from work and take a break before returning the next day.

Lawyers, on the other hand, are always on call. They have to meet billable hours and client demands. This means that a lawyer may be getting a call from a client late at night about concerns, and no matter what they’re doing, they feel they must drop everything and respond.

Lawyers also must frequently take their work home with them. This inability to turn their brain off from work mode and unwind may lead to lawyers turning to alcohol and drugs to get away from it all.

Issues with Morality

Depending on the type of lawyer, many in the legal industry may face moral issues when it comes to the types of clients they represent. These moral concerns can cause a great deal of stress.

For example, a lawyer defending an accused murderer must always defend their client to the best of their ability, even if they believe their client is guilty of the crime. This can result in putting someone who committed dreadful deeds back on the streets, causing guilt for the lawyer.

Doing things that go against the grain of your own moral code can lead to stress, cynicism, and hopelessness. Over time, this can lead to burnout and depression.

Consequences of Mental Health Issues and Substance Abuse

If a lawyer can no longer practice law to the best of their ability, whether this is due to a mental health issue or a substance abuse problem, they may be required to take some time off. Small missteps at work is one thing, but it’s a different thing entirely when lawyers can no longer do their jobs correctly, especially if someone else’s life is in their hands.

A lawyer can be disbarred for any number of reasons, including showing up to court or work intoxicated or showing signs of severe mental health problems. Once you are disbarred, becoming a lawyer again can be incredibly difficult. Even as an applicant to the state bar, a budding attorney may struggle with getting his law license if he has substance abuse-related arrests on his record.

What Lawyers Can Do

Lawyers who recognize that their work environment has taken a toll on their mental health can consult a substance abuse counseloror go to anger management counseling in order to regain control of their lives.

A trauma therapist can help them uncover the root of their mental health problems and find healthier, more sustainable ways to cope other than drugs and alcohol.

If you’re a lawyer struggling with mental health issues, you don’t have to go it alone. Call South Bay LA Therapy today to get the help you need.