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Program aims to provide wellness assistance to judges

Senior Editor Regular News

Program aims to provide wellness assistance to judges

Senior Editor

Judges know it’s lonely at the top. Over time, isolation can take a toll.

With that occupational hazard in mind, the Florida Conference of Circuit Judges is launching the “Florida Judicial Wellness Program,” a confidential resource for jurists who may be feeling overwhelmed.

Judge Scott Bernstein The program is the brainchild of immediate past conference Chair Scott Bernstein, a veteran 11th Circuit judge. Bernstein said he got the idea after several judicial meltdowns made headlines, one of them involving a close friend.

“I’ve learned a lot about vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue,” Bernstein said. “Although judges like to think that we’re super human beings, we’re really just humans, and it does take a toll.”

Judges face a higher risk of stress disorders because of their unique status, Bernstein said.

“When you get on the bench, you almost have to close down your friendship network with a lot of people because of appearances of impropriety,” Bernstein said. “And that cuts off the avenue for even talking about some of the things that are going on in your personal life, or your work life.”

Yet judges may be reluctant to seek help because they’re public figures who answer to voters, Bernstein said.

Bernstein and Ninth Judicial Circuit Judge Alicia Latimore were part of a 16-member committee that worked on the program for months before announcing it at the FCCJ annual meeting in August. More than 500 judges attended the meeting and the Florida Judicial Wellness Program booth drew heavy traffic, Bernstein said.

Quote Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc. — the non-profit that helps lawyers recover from emotional, mental health, and substance abuse issues — is lending a hand, Latimore said, but will remain a separate program.

“We have partnered with FLA, so they are able to provide us with assistance with their resources and their years of expertise,” Latimore said.

A judge or a family member can get help by dialing 888-972-4040. The person on the other end of the line could be affiliated with FLA or the Florida Judicial Wellness Program, but it won’t matter because callers won’t be required to identify themselves, Latimore said.

“He can say, ‘Hi, my name is Blue, I need assistance in this area, please contact me at this phone number,’” Latimore said. “The agent for the Florida Lawyers Assistance program is not going to keep any records, the agent for the Florida Judicial Wellness Program is not going to keep any records, they will simply find out the service that the judge is seeking.”

Within two weeks of the launch, the hotline was already ringing, Latimore said.

How does a judge know when to dial the number?

Latimore lists the following red flags:

• Feeling anxious, irritable, depressed, or overwhelmed.

• Drinking more than usual or using prescriptions to relax.

• Trouble sleeping or using sleeping pills.

• Financial disarray.

• Inability to enjoy hobbies or other activities.

• Friends and associates are expressing concern.

A website is being designed and a newsletter eventually will offer tips on diet, exercise, and work-life balance. The hope is to address issues before they become severe, Bernstein said.

Latimore says organizers may attempt to expand Florida Bar Rule 3-7.1 (J) — regarding confidentiality for lawyers who seek help with substance abuse and other mental health issues — to include judges. One day, the program may mature enough to become an option in lieu of some disciplinary sanctions, Bernstein said.

Latimore says organizers are hoping to spread the word to the Conference of County Court Judges of Florida, the Florida Judicial College, and advanced judicial studies programs.

“We are humans, we have families, we have kids who don’t act right, we have conflicts in our marriages or our relationships, and we have medical issues that we’re dealing with,” Latimore said “And we’re trying to balance life and work and everything else without the assistance that might be available to someone who might have the same Bar license, but just has not been elevated to the same position.”

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