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Bar’s mental health and wellness panel sets its agenda

Senior Editor Top Stories

The Florida Bar campaign to destigmatize mental illness and promote health and wellness in the profession remains a top priority.

That’s the message Bar leaders delivered to the Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers Committee at an October 17 meeting in Tampa.

“This committee is important, super important,” President John Stewart told committee members after dropping in to listen to progress reports on a variety of ongoing projects.

Accompanied by President-elect Dori Foster-Morales, Stewart praised the work that has been accomplished so far and reminded committee members that his successor will stress the issue when she assumes the post.

Foster-Morales helped launch the Bar’s health and wellness initiative when she chaired a predecessor committee.

Mental health and wellness is important to Foster-Morales, “so the mission is going to continue with much vim and vigor next year,” Stewart said.

Foster-Morales nodded in agreement.

Stewart wrapped up his remarks by directing the committee to work with the Technology Committee to explore new approaches.

“In this profession, you never get disconnected,” Stewart said. “That’s the challenge, how do you find a way for lawyers to disconnect for some period of time because I know that if somebody were to ask me not to look at my phone for 24 hours, it would stress me out so much that I would go crazy.”

In the nearly two years since former President Michael Higer made mental health and wellness the theme of his presidency, The Florida Bar has launched a mental-health website, made substance abuse and mental illness awareness a continuing legal education requirement, and dedicated an issue of The Florida Bar Journal to the topic, among other things.

The Young Lawyers Division has won plaudits for producing a series of video testimonials featuring lawyers who have overcome addiction and other mental challenges.

The Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers Committee, which Higer co-chairs, is working on several projects to keep the momentum going, Higer said.

Committee members have been researching legal mental-health help lines that have been established in Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia, said Co-chair Carl Schwait.

Another subcommittee is reviewing The Florida Bar’s mental-health website and soon expects to have a series of recommendations for a redesign, said committee member Nora Bergman.

“Let me say this, there is a lot of wonderful information on that website, and it hasn’t been around that long and to put something together as comprehensive as what we have is impressive,” Bergman said. “The challenge with that is sometimes your greatest strength can be your greatest vulnerability — there is so much information that it can kind of be overwhelming.”

A preliminary review suggests the web page could do a better job helping lawyers who turn to the site during an immediate crisis, Bergman said.

Another subcommittee is compiling a library of materials and a list of experts who are available to make presentations on a variety of subjects throughout Florida’s 20 judicial circuits, said committee member and Ninth Judicial Circuit Judge Alicia Latimore.

“I hope to have slides available to be presented by March of next year,” Latimore said. “The first thing is making sure that we can identify the attorneys in the different circuits that would be willing to present.”

Another subcommittee is researching health- and wellness-related vendors who might be willing to become part of The Florida Bar’s Member Benefits Program, said committee member Ramon Ortega-Cowan.

“We settled on physical fitness and nutrition, counseling and coaching, mindfulness and CLE,” Cowan said. A list of vendors should be ready to be submitted to the Member Benefits Committee by the Winter Meeting, Cowan said.

After the meeting, Schwait said that he was pleased with the progress.

“What really came out of the meeting is that we are not only focusing on the needs for mental health, but also the need for wellness for lawyers, because both of them are intermingled,” he said.

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