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Bar’s mental-health efforts build on a solid foundation

Senior Editor Top Stories
Dori Foster-Morales

Dori Foster-Morales

For Bar President Dori Foster-Morales, awareness grew following the December 2013 suicide of prominent Miami criminal defense attorney Richard Sharpstein.

“He had the gift of gab, the best joke teller,” she said. “There was no way you thought that this guy suffers from mental health or depression issues. It was to me shocking that this super successful, beloved figure would have this happen.”

Photo of Michael J. Higer

Michael J. Higer

For 2017-18 Bar President Michael Higer, “The whole subject of mental health…has been weighing on my mind for many, many, many years for both personal and professional reasons. As I got closer and closer to the point where I knew I would be Bar president someday, I naturally started thinking about the subject, not just in a general way but how I could affect positive change in the legal profession.”

Former Board of Governors member Carl Schwait, the outgoing chair of the Bar’s Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers Committee, had noticed a pattern in years as co-chair of the Disciplinary Review Committee where lawyers being disciplined weren’t all bad actors but had other stresses and strains that led them to making bad decisions.

“I was questioning is it possible that so many lawyers who did so well, went to college, went to law school and then went on to have problems? I came to the conclusion there were other issues,” he said.

Carl Schwait

Carl Schwait

Higer had already determined to do something and had had discussions with Foster-Morales when Schwait raised the issue at the strategic planning retreat that preceded Higer’s presidential year.

The upshot was the creation of the Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers, now a standing committee, with Foster-Morales as the first chair and Schwait as a charter member.

The committee originally had six members (it now has 24). Besides Foster-Morales and Schwait, there was a judge, a former lawyer, a psychiatrist, and a member of the Young Lawyers Division.

“We became like a family where we met every month without fail and suddenly the discussion about mental health and wellness oozed into the rest of the Bar,” Schwait recalled. “We were not the only Bar whatsoever that was doing this. This was really a discussion that was occurring throughout the whole country.”

Christian George

Christian George

Indeed, the committee found a wide spectrum of information. Foster-Morales said the Young Lawyers Division, under the leadership of 2018-19 YLD President Christian George, was addressing the issue. And the scope of the problems became more evident.

“Going into it, I certainly was aware that lawyers had issues, but I really had no idea on the numbers,” said Higer, who served as a committee co-chair after his presidential term. “As we went down the road we got more sensitive on how acute the numbers are among lawyers, and how lawyers stand out from other professionals in critical ways. Their numbers in terms of stress, anxiety, and suicide rates are significantly higher than other similar populations.

“It made the mission to me even more imperative.”

The committee began by organizing CLE courses for lawyers and working to remove the stigma associated with mental-health issues.

George, who serves on the committee, said that was one of his aims during his presidential year, with the YLD releasing a series of six videos where lawyers discussed dealing with their mental-health issues.

“One of my major goals was to break the stigma of mental-health treatment for lawyers,” he said.

George led the way by announcing at his Bar convention inaugural speech that he consulted monthly with a therapist, something he said then and now makes him a better husband, father, and lawyer — and in the latter case is a competitive advantage.

Aside from CLEs, the committee sponsored programs at Florida law schools and this year helped publicize programs that help judges. It has set up a Bar webpage with articles, CLEs, and other resources. And just as the pandemic hit, it spearheaded the Florida Lawyers Helpline, which connects Bar members with counselors and offers up to three free telehealth conferences.

Schwait said in the first year, the helpline has assisted 215 lawyers, far more than initially expected.

Foster-Morales said the committee’s efforts were helpful for lawyers facing the stresses brought about by the pandemic.

“There’s a good deal of suffering; it was helpful that we’ve been open to talking about suffering,” she said. “I think that was a little bit of a release valve. Lawyers are tasked with solving people’s problems, and people’s problems and their own struggles are greater during a pandemic.”

For Higer, Schwait, George, and Foster-Morales there still is much to do.

“We’ve been talking about this for three to four years. This can’t be like a pilot project. This at some level is going to have to be a forever project, starting with the law schools,” Foster-Morales said. “I think we’ve only scratched the surface. If we put these things on the shelf and walk away, it’s a big problem.”

“I think we’ve made a lot of strides over the past few years. Everyone is talking about it. The goal was to get everyone talking about it. It’s real in our industry and others,” George said. “The YLD has continued some programs itself every year. It’s ever evolving and I think it’s getting better and better, and I think the more people talk about it, the better.”

Schwait sees it as a continuing part of the Bar’s mission. Just like advertising rules aim to protect the public from misleading information, mental health and wellness programs help ensure the public they are getting capable lawyers.

“In 2017, we joined a real national discussion that everyone across the country was having to try to make sure that we understand our colleagues need help,” he said. “We are still finding that lawyers tend to have more depression, more anxiety, more substance abuse, more alcohol abuse than most other professions.

“In order to maintain public confidence in the profession, we have always believed that we need to help our colleagues in becoming healthier lawyers who then can provide better services.”

Higer looks at the issue with different feelings, both a sense of how much remains to be done but also with a sense of “kvelling,” a Yiddish word that means bursting with joy about something.

“My mission was to address the problem, to talk about it openly, to reduce the stigma, and make the conversation a public conversation on a broad scale,” he said. “On the Bar level, we have mental health weeks, we have social media posts almost every day, most of the voluntary bars are engaged in the subject one way or the other. We have elevated the discussion to make it acceptable.”

It is not addressing all of the issues related to mental health, but Higer said that was not a realistic goal — at the start.

“People are comfortable sharing their experiences and getting help without fear of an adverse consequence,” Higer said. “I know we have long way to go, but I am bursting with joy, I am kvelling over where we have gone….

“We’ve started the discussion. We have to continue to maintain it, continue to elevate the discussion, and make sure this discussion is part of the mainstream discourse among lawyers, judges, and law students.”

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