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The Bar Bulletin
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Feb. 7, 201910:09 AM EST

From the President: Health & wellness: We can do more

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Seeking help doesn’t make you less of a lawyer.

By Katie Dearing, JBA President

To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer.

Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to individual well-being. Too many lawyers experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use.

Katie Dearing

According to a study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.

These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers. 

The financial, emotional and time demands of this profession can easily compound other life stressors. Unfortunately, workaholism as a lifestyle is encouraged in the practice of law. A revenue model built on working as many hours in a day as possible is not healthy.

Too often, as long as the workaholic remains functional, wellness takes the backseat to profitability. But a workaholic can’t remain functional for long. It is difficult to maintain emotional bonds, adequate self care, recreational pursuits or spiritual practices. 

This deterioration in the basic quality of life can further harm a lawyer who is burning out on solving the problems of others.

The recognition that when we are stressed and unwell, we are not only worse off as people, but worse off as lawyers has inspired a renewed focus on individual well-being.  But achieving “wellness” can seem abstract and unattainable.

Wellness is a state of physical, mental and social well-being that is achieved through an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life. This deliberate focus on physical, mental, and social well-being is critical to being a healthy lawyer. 

To be in good physical health requires attention to nutrition and fitness. These commitments can serve as building blocks to individual well-being.

Though I am reminded at the beginning of each year that good nutrition and regular fitness sometimes are easier said than done, they at least seem to be tangible, attainable goals.

Addressing issues related to mental and social well-being is far more challenging. 

Too many lawyers are dealing with stressors such as depression, addiction, trauma and burnout, and do not have the tools to cope with these challenges. They try to attain an ever more elusive work-life balance while managing stress, time and money.

Yet, we lawyers are a proud group. Too many of us project success or hide stress because to admit we are struggling – either emotionally or financially – could seem like an admission that we aren’t as good a lawyer as we should be, an acknowledgment that we don’t have it all together.

The result is that many lawyers don’t seek the help they need, whether it’s counseling, stress/time/debt management advice, or resources designed to make the practice easier.

If we, as a profession, don’t talk more about these stressors, we aren’t doing each other any favors.

By not projecting that you’ve got it made or that you have everything figured out, you may give a struggling lawyer a window to open a much-needed dialogue. 

When I began this year as your president, I told you the Jacksonville Bar Association would renew its focus on health and wellness.

We have revamped our Health & Wellness committee to expand its portfolio from focusing not on only physical health, to include issues relating to mental health and social well-being.

The committee brought in Brian Cuban as our luncheon speaker last week, shining a light on substance abuse and other obstacles to wellness.

The committee also hosted a free CLE designed to discuss these challenges and give lawyers tools to be more successful in facing them.

Please join our Health & Wellness committee to support these and other initiatives, and look for the Bar to provide resources to members on related topics.  

Last week we launched our weekly #WellnessWednesday campaign. Our inaugural post linked to Cuban’s wellness blog, on which you will find posts and articles addressing suicide, depression, substance abuse and other challenges facing lawyers in the pursuit of a healthy life.

Follow the Jacksonville Bar Association on Facebook and Twitter for weekly #WellnessWednesday updates and resources.

Seeking help does not make you less of a lawyer. Quite the contrary: It makes you a better, stronger lawyer.

Ending the stigma that lawyers experience when addressing mental health and wellness issues is critical to changing the statistics that haunt our profession.  

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, depression, mental health or some other issue, Florida Lawyers Assistance is available to help. Visit fla-lap.org to learn more.

Katie Dearing is a 4th Judicial Circuit judge and president of the Jacksonville Bar Association. 

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