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The Florida Bar Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy Class IX: Getting Real About Mental Health

Special to the News Columns

Leadership Academy logoIt’s time we stop talking about mental health as if it is an imaginary, flowery, feel-good topic, where we make our lives better by doing a breathing exercise on an organized Zoom call once every three months. It’s not. Just as our physical health can decline drastically, and even lead to death, so too can our mental health decline in similar fashion. Here, we offer an honest take on the issue of mental health in the legal industry. We know that the right balance can bolster you and your career to new heights, save you and your career from pitfalls, help you on your down days (which we all have) and even save a life. But what about the other side of it all? What is not often spoken of is the fact that:

  • 32% of lawyers under the age of 30 have an alcohol and substance abuse problem (that’s just about 1 in 3);
  • 28% of lawyers struggle with depression;
  • 19% of lawyers suffer from anxiety and stress; and
  • 11% of lawyers have had suicidal thoughts at some point in their career.

See https://www.fla-lap.org/.

First things first, if you think you fit into any of the above categories, please take action now. In fact, stop reading and click here to access the Florida Lawyers Helpline for a referral to a professional counselor. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking help and making choices to prioritize and improve yourself.

In this column, we will discuss ways to identify and avoid burnout in the legal profession, spotlight Class IX Leadership Academy Fellows raising awareness regarding the issue of mental health in their communities, and offer some resources available through The Florida Bar in support of your mental health and wellbeing.

Avoid Burnout: If You Think You’re Doing Okay – Try to Keep it That Way

 This profession will lead you to believe that burnout is not real, and that you need to work 24/7, every day of the year, or you will fail. In reality, if you do that, you probably will fail. The fact is, your body physiologically requires rest. It is not optional. And burnout is not like being exhausted from a bad night’s sleep or a heavy day the day prior. It’s a cumulative exhaustion. The term itself is somewhat amorphous, but once you have it, you know it; and everyone who’s had it has known it. It happens when you’re overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with life’s incessant demands.

  • What are signs of it? Constant fatigue, regardless of sleep and a good diet, is a sign of burnout. Other signs can include loss of interest and detachment in all areas of your life, similar to depression. You don’t care to respond to friends’ texts that you normally would. You don’t feel excitement, or distasteful boredom, at whatever work is in front of you. You are just not interested.
  • How do I avoid it? We can view our options in two categories: (1) actions that affect our environment and life structure, and (2) actions that immediately impact our biochemistry. The first option involves time management and organization. You have to make time for yourself. Put another way, you must recognize that you belong on your calendar too. Lawyers are constantly working to solve other people’s problems. In that shuffle, lawyers often forget that they have problems that need time and attention too, whether ranging from large-scale problems such as relationship or financial problems to simple household chores like grocery shopping. Rather than let these issues pile up, schedule a few non-negotiable hours per week for yourself. This small change will be rewarding. The second option involves changing your diet and sleep habits. It goes without saying that we all need to eat and sleep better, and exercise when we can. To the extent you can avoid high fat, low-nutritional value foods, prioritize this. There are a number of meal-prep services out there centered on healthy eating and minimizing the time spent preparing meals on a daily basis. And, mindfulness is a practice and something one does, not just a vague way of thinking. Look into it, and see how helpful it is. After some time of practicing mindfulness, avoiding burnout will become more intuitive and a growing part of your daily habits.

If, at any point, you find yourself in a position where you are already burnt out, and therefore not in the best mental state to change any behaviors that are negatively impacting your quality of life, please reach out to a professional. Make space in your calendar for you. Consider meeting with a medical or other health-care professional. If you do not have a doctor or know who to call to find one, visit The Florida Bar’s Health and Wellness Center, which is linked below in the “Additional Resources” section.

Class IX Spotlight – Leadership Academy Fellows

Marc. A. Marra

Marc. A. Marra

Marc. A. Marra, partner at Kelley Kronenberg’s Ft. Lauderdale office and Leadership Academy Class IX fellow, sits on The Florida Bar’s Mental Health & Wellness of Florida Lawyer’s committee, among others. Marra is also the founder of Heart Warriors, Inc., a non-profit corporation which supports children with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS) and other congenital heart diseases, and their families. This cause hits close to home for Marra, as his daughter, Charlotte, has HLHS, and has undergone multiple major open-heart surgeries. Marra offers his thoughts on maintaining balance in this industry: “What has worked for me is eliminating the ‘work-life balance’ concept, and to do my best to be ‘on’ professionally and personally as much as possible. That usually means getting to my desk earlier than anyone so I can leave at a reasonable hour to be home with my family, and taking a client call or responding to an email late in the evening. It comes down to prioritizing. We all have too much to do. A quote my wife says that I have taken to heart is to know which of the “balls you are juggling” are made of glass and cannot be dropped (Family, Reputation, etc.) and which are made of rubber and can hit the ground once in a while.”

Michel Morgan

Michel Morgan

Michel Morgan, deputy general counsel of operations at Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company and Class IX Fellow, is a proponent of mental-health awareness and has blogged about the issue in the past. See Mental Health Awareness Month – Esquirefit. She offers her thoughts on maintaining balance in this industry: “Re-center yourself on your ‘why.’  If you are working so hard to the limits of burnout, and are always too stressed and mentally exhausted to enjoy the fruits of your labor, or to enjoy your time with the ones you work so hard to support, then what is the point? If you cannot answer this question with any logic, then it is time to make a change. Know that it is not selfish or unwise to put yourself first. In fact, it is necessary. You can never be your best self personally or professionally if you are pouring from an empty cup.”

Additional Resources

The Florida Bar offers a number of different resources for attorneys in support of mental health and wellbeing. Please consider visiting The Florida Bar’s Health and Wellness Center, among the many other options available on its website. Available are discount codes for meal plan services and other useful services for attorneys struggling with depression, anxiety, and alcohol and substance abuse. You’ll also find the Florida Lawyers Helpline (833-351-9355), which will confidentially connect you to professional counselors and can even refer you for up to three free counseling sessions per year.  Several of those resources are below:

We want all of you to be the best version of yourself possible. Don’t stop the discussion. Don’t stop practicing self-care and improvement.

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“There’s going to be some stuff you’re going to see, that’s going to make it harder to smile in the future. But whatever you see, through all the rain and the pain, you got to keep your sense of humor. You’ve got to be able to smile through all this bull****. Remember that.” – Tupac A. Shakur

(Fellows Akiesha Gilcrist Sainvil and Michel Morgan edited this column)

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