21 Apr Lawyers are Twice as Likely to Abuse Substances
One of the most prevalent myths about substance abuse is that it’s a problem only for the disadvantaged and the poor. In reality, white-collar workers are just as likely to develop a problem as someone who is at a socioeconomic disadvantage, and research has shown that lawyers are twice as likely to abuse substances, with a particular pre-disposition toward alcohol abuse. With almost 100,000 deaths from alcohol every year, the potential damage done by the condition afflicting the legal profession is substantial. The biggest issue, however, is difficulty in recognizing the issue or convincing attorneys to take steps to improve their health.
What Are the Statistics?
Generally accepted figures show that about 10 percent of the population in the United States has a problem with alcohol addiction, but this is as much as 20 percent for lawyers who have been practicing for two to 20 years, and up to 25 percent for those who’ve been practicing longer. The disciplinary commission has reported that about half of the cases that come to them are related to substance abuse.
The most obvious explanation for the increased rates of substance abuse among lawyers is the level of stress present in their jobs. This is hard to deny, with high-profile cases, hefty workloads and even passing the bar exam as major sources of stress for practicing and aspiring lawyers.
However, depression may well have a bigger role to play than the stress of the job. Research has shown that as many as 26 percent of those practicing law have clinical depression, and that 12 percent contemplate suicide at least once a month. In fact, attorneys have suicide rates of up to six times that of the general population. Alcoholism is thought to be a factor in 30 percent of suicides, so these figures all link together in a particularly unsettling fashion.
There is also evidence of attorneys not wanting to admit to having a problem with alcohol or drugs, through fear of damaging their professional reputation. This has led to a culture of substance abuse among lawyers, which is believed to take root in law school. Some judges have been reported to avoid even seeking treatment because they’re afraid of what would happen if word got out.
As a result of the prevailing culture in the legal profession, it’s also possible that alcoholic lawyers or judges may not even realize that they have an issue. This is because they’re surrounded by others with similar drinking habits. The problem is compounded by the fact that professional associations apparently are not interested, despite increasing attempts to bring the issue to them.
What Can Be Done?
There are many approaches that may be effective in tackling the issue of substance abuse among legal professionals. Many key factors must be present in an effective strategy, including confidentiality (so there is no fear of damaged reputations), tackling denial and teaching lawyers healthier methods of dealing with depression, anxiety and stress.
Education is also vital for everyone involved in the legal profession. This could be incorporated in law school, as suggested by Larry Dubin in the Michigan Bar Journal, because this is where the problem often develops. This would not only allow individuals to recognize when their own drinking or drug use is becoming a severe problem, but also to spot warning signs in their colleagues and help them receive support. It would be a vital step in ensuring that legal professionals are willing to talk openly about substance abuse.
One approach that has been successful is Lawyer Assistance Programs. There are currently three of these in New York, as well as others in all 50 states, across Canada, and in other countries such as the U.K. The service is free and confidential, and was set up with the intention of helping lawyers who are struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues. This is achieved through counseling, interventions, outreach, monitoring programs and peer support schemes.
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