Losing a hard working attorney to suicide usually comes as a shock. You will sometimes hear people exclaim in disbelief “But she didn’t look like she was depressed. She wasn’t showing signs that anything was wrong.”
What does a depressed person look like? What signs are they supposed to throw at us? I’ve been immersed in attorney wellbeing for some time now, and here’s a rather obvious fact that often goes un-noted: the majority of people with mental health, addiction and related issues don’t publicize their problems or manifest visible symptoms, especially in a profession that traditionally shies away from openness and vulnerability.
On the one hand, the legal profession has increased access to mental health and wellbeing resources via employee assistance programs and state based lawyer assistance programs. This progress is laudable and shouldn’t be dismissed.
However, the profession still has a tendency to keep its head down when it sees someone who may be struggling. Instead of “staying in our lane” as many of us do now, we need to do a better job of offering some support. Is it uncomfortable? Of course it is, especially if you don’t know the nuances of a fellow lawyer’s struggles. It doesn’t matter if you are an expert though: you don’t need to be. Some empathy and a listening ear can go a long way.
Enter my friend Lisa Smith, a recovery advocate, writer, speaker, podcast host, lawyer, and author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar. Lisa is a frequent speaker at law firms and law schools. Through her talks, book, podcast, and uncanny ability to listen, she helps others by sharing her personal experiences with depression, addiction, and recovery.
About 15 years ago, Lisa, then a high functioning but struggling alcoholic, hit a pivot point in her life: she sought help and began pulling herself out of the spiral of drug and alcohol addiction. Lisa’s story is compelling to all of us, regardless of whether we have personally stared down alcoholism or not. Lisa’s story is raw, real and relatable:
“My slide into round-the-clock drinking was something I was entitled to. It made me ashamed and it made me despise myself, but it also made me feel better because it was a crucial weapon in the fight against being me. I felt entitled to do whatever it took to win the battle against the unfair circumstances of my life, this life in which I played by all the right rules and still ended up miserable and lonely and riddled with self-hatred.” – Girl Walks Out of a Bar
In Episode 28 of the Sweatours Legal Wellbeing Podcast, Lisa describes the non-discriminatory nature of addiction and its often connected self-loathing: no age, gender or status is immune. She also talks about how addiction ties in to corporate culture, as well as the increased push for support programs and open communication in the workplace.
The communication piece is where Lisa really shines. The most common barrier for lawyers seeking treatment for wellbeing issues is a concern that others will find out about it. Lisa, through her advocacy, is chipping away at the stigma behind these issues and making it okay to discuss.
The conversation about mental health, addiction and wellbeing among lawyers needs to be structured and ongoing, especially for our younger lawyers. Sure, new lawyers should learn about best practices with clients, but they should also learn that it’s imperative to learn best practices for themselves.
Let’s face it: whether we struggle with substance abuse or not, we are all addicted to something. We all have our demons. Lisa opens her world to us and learns to love herself not merely in spite of, but because of, her struggles. And in doing so, she makes it ok for the rest of us to follow suit.
To learn more about Lisa Smith, visit www.lisasmithadvisory.com.
To learn more about Sweatours Legal Wellbeing, visit www.sweatours.com.