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Understanding and Preventing Mental Health Issues for the Legal Professional

Tips, Anecdotes & Apps to Improve Coping Skills

The legal profession is stressful, but mental health challenges impact our entire country. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults in America experience a mental illness in a given year. While depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that 2.4 million American adults live with schizophrenia, 6.1 million live with bipolar disorder, 16 million live with depression and 42 million live with anxiety disorders. Those figures are unnerving. We cannot presume legal professionals are immune to this risk. We actually may face statistically greater risks.
Legal professionals are subject to unforgiving deadlines, heightened duties and high expectations. We connect with profound losses and financial stress, while expected to analyze and interpret reality (whether in disputes or transactions) in a strategic and logical fashion. We digest and retain massive data and analysis loads. At times, we’re counted on to make split-second decisions in court, or while negotiating, that cannot be easily undone. We engage in conflict and navigate uncertainties without guaranteed positive outcomes. With all these responsibilities, it’s no wonder legal professionals are susceptible, and not immune from, mental health problems.
According to the American Bar Association’s article, Mental Health Initiative Tool Kit for Student Bar Associations and Administrators, practicing lawyers exhibit clinical anxiety, hostility and depression at rates that range from 8 to 15 times the general population. In addition, lawyers rank 5th in incidence of suicide and exhibit very high levels of substance abuse. We are not immune, we are very susceptible and people depend on us.
So what can legal professionals do to deal with professional distress? The good news is that there are resources available to both practicing lawyers and law students. For example, the State Bar of California offers its Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) that helps lawyers and State Bar applicants who are struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, substance use or concerns about their career. Participation is confidential as mandated by California Business and Professions Code §6234. In addition, meditation has been encouraged. According to Law Practice Management Advisor, lawyers who meditate have larger brains (if that is possible) and less depression. Meditation leads to an improved ability to deal with highly emotional or stressful events.
There are various coping mechanisms that work for each individual. For example, exercising, eating healthy, listening to music, reading, volunteering, creating a flexible work schedule and connecting with friends and family are just a few of my own personal coping mechanisms. As the legal profession deals with often conflicting versions of reality, we all must become familiar with “cognitive distortions” and work on recognizing them not only in others, but also ourselves. This could greatly enhance attorney professionalism and courtesy. Perhaps that is the essence of our collective journey toward a judicial temperament. We all need to make that journey.
Outside of the traditional legal obligations of working toward judicial temperament, and charitable work, I have also discovered a less traditional resource: apps. There are a plethora of free and paid apps available for mobile phones and tablets. Here are seven to consider, and many, many more are available:

1. Moodnotes
This app implements cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) through simple daily questions that allow users to keep a log of their mood. My favorite aspect of this app is that if an individual logs negative moods, it takes them through a series of cognitive distortions and asks if perhaps they are getting their thoughts “caught” in a distortion. If so, it provides a brief curative reminder to help overcome the distortion.

2. Streaks
This app allows users to select any behavior or habit they’re working on (journaling, exercise, etc.) and track on a daily basis if they accomplish the habit. This app is easy to use, not negative and very useful.

3. Mindfulness
This is a simple meditation app that will deliver a gentle bell ring for 5, 10, 15, 20 or 30 minutes for when an individual wants to meditate. It delivers a “ping” when the user concludes the time selected, which can be helpful.

4. Gratitude
This is a daily gratitude journal app, which allows users to electronically jot down things they’re grateful for and keep a digital log of those entries. It’s quick and easy to use.

5. MyFitnessPal
This free app (sponsored by Under Armour, which also offers a paid version) lets users track their food intake and exercise on a daily basis, enter basic health data and establish a daily caloric intake goal with an eye toward either losing or maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, this app interacts with Health, the Apple health data tool kit. Users can use other apps to track exercise and have the data automatically loaded into MyFitnessPal to log calories burned.

6. Phraseology
This is a good daily writing/diary system that offers some nice features for writing entries and is easier to use than the basic note-taking feature on most tablets.

7. WOOP
This app was created by Gabriele Oettingen, the author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking.” The app is designed to help people create goals, ponder obstacles and then plan to succeed with a combination of positive thinking plus realistic assessment of necessary steps.
Another resource was recently reported in The Atlantic (A First Aid Class for Mental Health, February 12, 2016, by Meagan Morris): “Since 2001, the National Council for Behavioral Health has attempted to combat that [mental illness] stigma with its Mental Health First Aid program, which teaches participants how to recognize when someone is going through a mental-health crisis, and how to help them get through it.” The training assessment algorithm is summarized with the acronym ALGEE: Assess risk of suicide/harm, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage appropriate professional help and Encourage self-help and other strategies.
It’s important to understand that no app, anecdotal truism or mental health acronym can replace mental health counseling and intervention when needed. Legal professionals should get the professional help they need without delay. In the absence of crisis, however, it remains crucial for legal professionals to find their identity and meaning outside of their careers. Be someone more than purely a legal professional—be a complete person with interests, friends and resources. Be yourself, get a life, find new challenges and keep learning. If you suspect you need more help than lifestyle diligence, get the assistance needed. After all, family, friends, clients and colleagues are depending on you. In the end, you are the product, the source of important guidance and representation. If you are not well, then your ability to help others is impaired. So to the extent possible, be well. Or as the wise psychologist in the movie Silver Linings Playbook recommended to the Bradley Cooper character struggling to overcome mental health challenges: You need a strategy. We all do.

James Eischen

James Eischen is a Partner at Higgs, Fletcher & Mack LLP with more than 29 years of experience as an attorney in California. Eischen handles corporate, real estate and healthcare matters. He received his Juris Doctor from the University of California at Davis School of Law in 1987. Eischen is involved in numerous professional organizations, including the San Diego County Bar Association Law & Medicine Section, Attorney-Client Relations Committee, American Academy of Family Physicians healthcare compliance educator, American Academy of Private Physicians corporate secretary and chair of the Legal Compliance Committee.

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About the Author: James Eischen is a Partner at Higgs, Fletcher & Mack LLP with more than 29 years of experience as an attorney in California. Eischen handles corporate, real estate and healthcare matters. He received his Juris Doctor from the University of California at Davis School of Law in 1987. Eischen is involved in numerous professional organizations, including the San Diego County Bar Association Law & Medicine Section, Attorney-Client Relations Committee, American Academy of Family Physicians healthcare compliance educator, American Academy of Private Physicians corporate secretary and chair of the Legal Compliance Committee.

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