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Bar launches free Mental Health Helpline

Senior Editor News in Photos

The goal is to make every Bar member aware that they have access to high-quality confidential mental-health resources

Dori Foster-Morales, president-elect of The Florida BarWith surveys showing the COVID-19 pandemic taking a toll on the nation’s mental health, Florida Bar leaders are accelerating the launch of a confidential Florida Bar Mental Health Helpline.

“It is clear that our members are facing, as is all of society, a crisis of epic proportions,” said President-elect Dori Foster-Morales.

Beginning May 1, some 90,000 eligible Bar members will be able to dial the helpline (833-351-9355 or “833-FL1-WELL”) and speak with a mental-health professional who can provide crisis intervention and a referral for up to three free visits with a locally based, licensed mental-health professional. Given the current environment, members will be able to get telehealth therapy sessions until it is safe to go back to in-person sessions. (Please note: This number is not a referral service to find a lawyer or make a complaint against a lawyer.)

The service is provided through an agreement with CorpCare Associates, Inc., an Atlanta-based firm that boasts a network of 11,000 providers nationwide and some 200 providers in Florida, with plans to enroll more.

The Florida Lawyers Helpline also provides professionals to assist in other parts of the member’s life, such as case managers to help find long-term care facilities for family members; childcare specialists that can find and vet available centers or summer camps that have openings in the member’s area; or financial consultants for help getting out of debt, budgeting, and planning for retirement. All of these services are completely confidential and at no cost to eligible Bar members. CorpCare Associates has similar agreements with state bars in Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia. Bar staff point out that the company’s extended reach means it can serve the large contingent of out-of-state Florida Bar members, too.

Carl SchwaitA signature achievement of her years of Bar service, Foster-Morales first proposed the helpline in 2017 when she co-chaired the Special Committee on the Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers with veteran Bar member Carl Schwait.

Schwait said he and Foster-Morales began discussing the idea after his service on a Bar disciplinary review committee convinced him that the Bar could do more to help lawyers who stray.

“If I have an ethical question, we have an ethics hotline, yet if I am having an emotional issue that is affecting both me and my client, then shouldn’t I also have a helpline from the Bar?” Schwait said.

The Florida Bar has been offering confidential assistance to troubled lawyers for years through the independent Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., which offers mental-health and substance-abuse counseling. The two services will eventually link, Schwait said.

Photo of Michael J. HigerThe special committee was appointed by former President Michael Higer in response to the suicides of prominent South Florida lawyers and surveys showing the legal profession at increased risk of anxiety, depression, and substance-abuse disorders.

A 2016 study by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that 21% of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28% struggle with some level of depression, and 19% experience symptoms of anxiety.

A 24/7 helpline providing real-time, on-demand help to lawyers is the “heart and soul” of member benefits, Higer said.

“Given the wide-scale and unprecedented stress so many of us are suffering, The Florida Bar’s continuing commitment to the health and wellness of its lawyers is a great comfort to all who care deeply about those who serve, and those who we serve,” said Higer, who with Schwait, now co-chairs the Standing Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers.

The same year as the initial ABA study, the National Organization of Bar Counsel, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs formed the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.

“A study by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being found that 40% to 70% of all lawyer disciplinary cases involved depression, substance abuse, or a combination of both,” Schwait said.

That was years before the lethal COVID-19 pandemic brought the nation’s economy, and much of the legal system, to a screeching halt.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study released April 9 suggests that nearly half of all people in the United States feel the COVID-19 pandemic is harming their mental health.

Conducted March 25-30, the Kaiser survey found that 45% of adults say the pandemic has affected their mental health, and 19% say it has had a “major impact.”

Since the Kaiser survey, more than 30 million Americans have applied for unemployment assistance, the most since the Great Depression. Some experts are predicting that an estimated current 13% national unemployment rate could exceed 20% before the crisis is over, a level also not seen since the Great Depression.

The helpline was initially scheduled to launch this summer, to coincide with the Bar’s Annual Convention and Foster-Morales’ swearing-in ceremony.

But Foster-Morales said Bar leaders decided the launch was too important to wait.

“If we thought we were under stress before, it’s only become magnified,” Foster-Morales said. “Health issues are magnified, anxiety and mental-health issues are magnified, financial issues, they are all magnified with this completely unexpected turn of events.”

President John Stewart praised Foster-Morales for her foresight and advocacy for this service and other Bar leaders for agreeing to to launch the helpline on May 1 instead of July 1.

“Many of our members were already dealing with stressors and now those are amplified,” Stewart said. “Now is when the need for professional counseling is the greatest,” Stewart said.

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