As a young prosecutor, one of my responsibilities was to pursue the involuntary commitment of men and
women with mental illness. If it could be shown that they were a danger to themselves or others, more
often than not they would be sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation and treatment. At that time, it did
not even occur to me that my own profession would, according to a Johns Hopkins study, be the most
likely of 105 professions to produce severe depression. I did not know that attorneys are six times more
likely to attempt suicide than the general population. And I could not then have known that since Christmas
of 2005, six of our Tennessee colleagues would die by suicide.
Attorneys are not bullet-proof
Clearly I was naïve in assuming my profession might be immune from mental illness. According to a 1999
report by the United States Surgeon General, about 20 percent of the U.S. population is affected by mental
disorders during a given year. The surveys employed in that report estimated that during a one-year period,
22 to 23 percent of the U.S. adult population – or 62 million people if 2000 Census data are used – had
diagnosable mental disorders. A smaller number of those, more than 15 million people, face major
depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. With statistics like these, how
could anyone seriously expect that attorneys are bullet-proof?
My naïveté about the likelihood that attorneys might face mental illness is less justifiable when one considers
the positive attributes that often accompany certain mental illnesses. According to Kay Redfield
Jamison, PhD., professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-author of
the definitive medical text on Manic-Depressive Illness, one of the reasons that bipolar disorder is found
more often among the professional and upper social classes is that the bipolar personality is often characterized
by fierce energy, high mood, quick intelligence, increased risk taking, and decreased need for sleep. An
extreme attention to detail often characterizes those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mentally ill attorneys
with these attributes join a long list of others who have made our society more colorful, more full of
texture and grace, including Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cole Porter and
Too many don’t get help for themselves or others
Despite these strengths, too many in the legal profession and society at large do not seek out the treatment
necessary to manage the negative aspects of their conditions. Thus, they do not prevent themselves from
spiraling into self-destructive behaviors such as medicating themselves with illegal drugs and alcohol or
death by suicide. In fact, nearly two-thirds of all people with diagnosable mental disorders do not seek
treatment. As the President said in April 2002, one of the obstacles preventing Americans with mental illness
from getting the care they deserve is the stigma that surrounds these disorders of the brain.
One would think that because attorneys are good at rationally evaluating all the facts, we would be less
likely than others to stigmatize our colleagues with mental illness. But that is not the case. In fact, the problem
is so great that one American Bar Association publication told the story of a successful government
lawyer with 20 years of experience who suffered harassment and isolation after being diagnosed as bipolar.
As a result, he had a complete breakdown, lost his job and was placed on disability status. Another lawyer
had to move to a different town in order to escape the stigma among judges and other lawyers.
Atlanta attorney Stephen Paskoff wrote recently that the reasons for stigma “are as old as history. Some
people are afraid of mental illness; others don’t believe it exists or that it’s imagined.” One experienced
Tennessee judge recently echoed an illustrative sentiment when he told me that he had never seen a circumstance
in which criminal conduct was in any way related to a mental health issue. And despite brain science
to the contrary, in this part of the country, it’s still not uncommon to hear the naive refrain that if people just
read the Bible more, there wouldn’t be mental illness.
The power of our colleagues’ opinions is strong. As Doug Toft wrote here when he discussed substance
abuse among attorneys, “Lawyers’ professional survival depends on their competence as perceived by peers
and clients. This in turn creates pressure to appear invincible …” And as an ABA editorial put it, “mental illness
and compulsive behaviors remained dark secrets lest practice and reputations suffer. Impaired lawyers
muddled through their lives, frequently wreaking havoc upon others, just because a whisper for help boded
weakness. The standard bearers for truth, justice, and the American way have to remain strong at all times,
even if that strength is spelled D-E-N-I-A-L.”
Embracing those with mental illness is now a national priority
We in the legal profession should be among the first to take up the charge issued by the President’s New
Freedom Commission on Mental Health:
The Commission acknowledges the need to eliminate employment discrimination in any
form; it is too often based on current or past psychiatric diagnosis or mental health treatment.
In particular, the Commission recommends national leadership to end employment
discrimination against people with psychiatric disabilities in the public and private sectors.
All levels of Federal, State, and local government should review their employment policies
to eradicate discriminatory practices on the basis of mental health treatment or diagnosis. A
great opportunity exists for all levels of government and the private sector to serve as models
by hiring individuals with disabilities.
There are several reasons we should be at the forefront of this effort. First, as lawyers, we should know
that it is illegal to discriminate against persons – including lawyer employees – on the basis of mental disability
in the first place. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines “disability” as a “physical or mental
impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual,” “a record of
such impairment,” or “being regarded as having such an impairment.” Knapp v. City of Columbus, 2006 WL
1878332 (6th Cir. July 6, 2006). The recently released Eeoc Enforcement Guidance: The Americans With
Disabilities Act And Psychiatric Disabilities provides helpful guidance to avoid discriminating against those
with mental illness.
A second reason attorneys should be among the first to step up to the plate when it comes to mental health
issues is because our profession is entrusted with much responsibility for the lives and fortunes of those
around us. If our colleagues who suffer from mental illness do not feel free to get the help they need, not only
do they suffer, clients suffer as well. But that doesn’t have to be the case. As the National Alliance on Mental
[B]rain disorders are treatable. Most people with a serious mental illness can experience
relief from their symptoms by taking prescribed medications. Psychosocial treatments such
as cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, self-help and support groups, housing,
vocational rehabilitation, and other community services can also provide support and stability
and assist with recovery.
A third reason lawyers should reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness is found in the lives of nearly
one dead attorney per month since Christmas. Each of these people mattered to those around him. To his family,
his friends, his colleagues. Perhaps the question is impossible to answer, but it must still be asked: if we,
as a profession, had been more informed about the signs and symptoms of depression and welcoming of our
colleagues with mental illness, need they have died?
To seek help for yourself or for your colleagues, or to become more educated on mental health issues,
please contact either the Tennessee Lawyer Assistance Program at (877) 424-8527 (www.tlap.org) or the
Tennessee office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness at (800) 467-3589 (www.namitn.org). TLAP can
provide lawyers, judges, bar applicants and law students confidential assistance statewide. NAMI has 35
affiliates across the state, each of which can put you or anyone you know in touch with confidential support
groups, as well as education on mental health issues. If you are concerned that you, a colleague or family
member is in danger of suicide, please call the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network at (888) SUICIDE.
Charles Bloeser practices criminal and civil litigation with the Nashville firm of Hubbard, Berry & Harris. He is a
member of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He also serves on the Criminal Justice Committee
for the Tennessee office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and is one of seven Tennessee lawyers currently
identified by the national NAMI office as being willing to represent mentally ill individuals. He may be contacted at
(615) 251-5444 or at email@example.com.