'The impact on society is enormous': In legal profession, depression, addiction hurt clients, too

Research shows lawyers and law students are at risk for mental health and addiction issues. But a general stigma and suck-it-up mentality often prevents them from seeking help.

Lawyers face much greater stigma than other professionals when revealing mental health or addiction issues

Michele Hollins was treated for depression 10 years ago and knows the challenges of facing mental health issues in the legal profession. (Dunphy Best Blocksom LLP)

Ten years ago, litigation lawyer Michele Hollins was a "perpetually happy person," with twin daughters and a partnership in her Calgary law firm.

Then, depression struck.

For a while, Hollins was able to hide her illness at work, then go home and "become a complete automaton," she says, unable to eat or even muster the energy to get ready for bed.

At its worst, the depression crippled her at work, to the point where Hollins would walk into her office, say hello to her assistant and then "close the door and lay on the floor and cry for hours."

At her lowest point, she says she would "spend most of the day trying to figure out how to collect myself enough to get to my car and get home."

That raw vulnerability doesn't match the general impression society has of lawyers as tough and ambitious.

But research suggests that they are at much higher risk of depression, anxiety and substance abuse issues than people in the broader population — and may even be more susceptible than those in other high-stress professions, such as medicine.

A U.S. study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine last February found the rate of problem drinking among lawyers was between two and three times higher than among other highly educated professionals, including physicians. The study was funded by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

The rate of depression was about three times higher than the general population in the U.S., according to lead researcher Patrick Krill, who will be presenting his research to lawyers and law students in Toronto on Monday at a professional development session hosted by the Law Society of Upper Canada.

"Impairment among attorneys truly has a ripple effect that implicates everything from the proper and efficient functioning of the economy and government more broadly, to the individual, civil and property rights of citizens who depend on lawyers in the course of daily life," said Krill, a lawyer and counsellor.

"The impact on society is enormous, and has not, to date, been properly acknowledged or appreciated."

Canadian parallels

Although there is limited research on lawyers and mental health in Canada, Krill believes the American findings are "almost certainly applicable to Canadian lawyers," because "mental health distress and substance abuse are more directly linked to the profession than they are to a nationality."

'Distressed lawyers have a big impact on society,' says Doron Gold, a former lawyer who is now a social worker helping people in the legal profession deal with mental health issues. (Homewood Health Centre)

Lawyers going through emotional distress are unlikely to ask for help, says Doron Gold, a lawyer-turned-social worker at Homewood Health in Toronto, an agency with mental health and addiction facilities across Canada.

"If there's stigma in society generally, the stigma is tenfold in the legal profession," he says. "This is a group of people who aren't supposed to have these vulnerabilities. And they're supposed to be impervious to them."

Gold will also be speaking at Monday's event in an effort to help lawyers acknowledge there's a problem — and that it's OK to deal with it. 

People drawn to law tend to be thinkers rather than feelers, he says, which doesn't predispose them to coping well with emotional problems.

On top of that, he says the profession "essentially demands [them] to be perfect," and they feel enormous pressure to put up a front of confidence and competence for their clients, peers and bosses.

'Adversarial' jobs

Plus the "adversarial" nature of court and hearing proceedings means they can't show anything that could be perceived as weakness. 

"You don't want [opposing counsel] to see any vulnerability in you if you want to get the better of them," Gold says.

When faced with personal or professional distress, lawyers judge themselves harshly for even feeling that way, he says. 

"[They tell themselves,] 'Suck it up, buttercup,'" says Gold. "[They say,] 'You're a fixer, you don't get fixed.'"

He says that by not facing the issue, it usually gets worse, ultimately leading to addiction or a breakdown. 

Gold says law societies across the country have set up lawyer assistance programs to provide confidential counselling and treatment before their suffering gets worse.

It's in society's best interest, Gold says. 

"Lawyers impact whether people... have their liberty taken away from them in criminal matters. They help to determine in what homes children grow up in family law matters," he says. "Lawyers have a big impact on society and therefore distressed lawyers have a big impact on society."

'Terrible anxiety'

Veteran criminal defence lawyer Derek LaCroix knows first hand the importance of getting help — both for his own well-being and that of his clients. 

Derek LaCroix, executive director of the Lawyers Assistance Program of B.C., overcame anxiety and alcohol addiction while he was working as a criminal defence lawyer. (Lawyers Assistance Program of B.C.)

Decades ago, the B.C. lawyer suffered "terrible anxiety" and became addicted to alcohol. He ended up cutting back his workload because he "didn't want to go to court drunk or hungover."

Like many lawyers, LaCroix couldn't understand why, as a high achiever, he couldn't solve the problem himself. 

"I'd go, 'I should be able to do this. I should be able to. Why can't I? What's wrong with me?'" he says. "As opposed to, 'Hey I've got a problem. I need help.'"

The prospect of having to go on social assistance jolted him into finally getting assistance.

Although LaCroix went back to work and excelled, he eventually decided to use his experience to help other lawyers in similar situations. He's now the executive director of B.C.'s Lawyer Assistance Program. 

"If I look back and was honest, I mean, I don't know whether my win-losses would have been much different, but the quality of service I gave my clients was different," LaCroix says candidly. 

"How well I treated them, how quickly I got back to them, how much I listened to them, how much I, you know, appropriately comforted them and/or gave them the straight goods in a kind and useful way."

At the urging of friends, Michele Hollins got treatment for her depression, and says she has made a full recovery.

She feels fortunate that her seniority as a partner in her firm helped protect her job, and recognizes that many lawyers don't have that job security.

So when she started a year-long term as president of the Canadian Bar Association in 2014, she made it her mission to speak openly about mental health and make sure programs were in place — like an online service launched in 2015 — so lawyers could feel safe seeking support. 

Hollins says it's rare that a week goes by when she doesn't hear from someone in the law profession who is struggling or seeking help for a colleague.

"There is a huge... unmet need that people have to talk about their own mental health challenges." 


Nicole Ireland is a reporter with The Canadian Press.