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Therapy: Being a Zealous Advocate for Yourself

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By Chase Andersen


Things aren’t that bad…
I’m sure it’ll eventually get better…
I’m too busy to ask for help…
I don’t want to appear weak…
I just need to power through it


Would you say those things to yourself about physical ailments or diseases such as a broken ankle or diabetes? Now, would you say those things to yourself about mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, or depression? How about a substance use issue involving alcohol or other drugs? Were your answers different? If so, why?

Overview

In March 2020, our world changed, and we were faced with new stressors that weren’t previously on our radar. Rates of anxiety and depression almost quadrupled from 2019 and preexisting mental health and substance use issues were only exacerbated through the pandemic. While nearly 30 percent of Americans saw a therapist during the pandemic, there are still millions of Americans—including lawyers—who are resistant to seek help from a mental health professional.  This article will discuss why some attorneys are reluctant to seek counseling. We will dispel those reluctancies and identify the numerous benefits of being proactive with one’s mental health. Most importantly, we will hopefully convince those of you that may be on-the-fence that not only is it okay to seek therapy but also that it will help you in all areas of your life.  

The Benefits of Therapy

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being starts off its 2017 report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being, with this statement: “[t]o be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer.” And we all want to be good lawyers, right? Accordingly, we should all strive to be healthy. But just as physical health requires time and effort, so does mental health. And counseling is one of the best ways to better your mental health.

Generally speaking, “therapy” or “counseling” refers to the process of meeting (in-person or virtually) with a trained mental health or substance use professional to discuss and resolve problematic feelings, issues, or behaviors. While there are different kinds of therapy modalities geared toward helping specific issues, this article will focus on the most common form: one-on-one talk therapy.

To begin, there are several ways to set up counseling, including calling Minnesota’s Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (see more information at the end of this article), contacting your employer’s employee assistance program, or going directly through your insurance provider. 

Not only does counseling help you process the personal and professional stressors we all face, it can also provide you with skills to help you deal with stressful situations that might arise in the future. Comparing physical health to mental health: if you have a healthy diet and exercise regularly, your body will be better prepared if-and-when you are faced with injuries or illnesses. Likewise, the more effort you put into having a healthy mental health baseline, the better-suited you will be to handle future curve balls thrown your way.  

In addition, the more one can deal with stressors in a healthy manner, the less likely one will resort to coping with their issues in unhealthy ways such as problematic drinking and using other substances. As you may know, these issues are prevalent among lawyers. The 2016 ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford study entitled “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys” found that the rate of substance use issues among practicing attorneys was approximately double that of the general population.

Furthermore, therapy can assist you to address and move on from previous negative events and traumas, help you become more in-tune with your own feelings, and enable you to pass along these learned lessons to others in your life, whether it be family members, friends, or co-workers.

Most importantly, at least from my personal experiences with my therapist, it is a great resource for just venting. Sure, I talk regularly with my spouse, family, friends, and co-workers, but it is so helpful to have a neutral, un-biased, and trained professional whose primary purpose during our time together is to help me and provide feedback and advice with handling life’s ups-and-downs.

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Barrister Barriers

Oftentimes, attorneys will feel as though they can handle their stressors on their own. Most of our professional life is spent in our own heads and we tend to feel as though we should be able to figure out our own issues or just “power through it.” But handling our own mental health challenges is much different from handling a challenging client or case. One cannot just “power through” severe mental health issues until they are gone, unlike being able to just “power through” that challenging case until it settles. Accordingly, those issues rarely resolve themselves. 

Like I always say, if you keep sweeping those issues underneath that proverbial rug, eventually that rug will be pushing up against the ceiling and it will be dang hard to breathe. Therapy can be a great way to help you sweep those issues out of that room (and your life) and teach you to keep that broom nearby for future messes.

Another common excuse that lawyers cite regarding therapy is “I’m too busy.” Yes, attorneys live busy lives, juggling caseloads and family life, but there should always be time to make one’s own well-being a priority. And I have found that the benefits from a therapy session make up for those missed billable hours tenfold in terms of stress reduction. Plus, in today’s world of virtual appointments and telehealth therapy, seeing a counselor is easier than ever.

I often compare prioritizing self-care to being on an airplane when the flight attendant advises, “Put your oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others.” How can you be expected to properly help your clients, you family, and your community if you aren’t taking care of yourself first?  It’s that simple!

Overcoming Stigma

Over the last decade, at least from my experience, there seems to be a decrease in the stigma surrounding seeking therapy and asking for professional support when needed. However, it is still an obstacle facing many attorneys, judges, and law students.  

It is important to recognize that there is often an internal stigma regarding mental health and substance use issues so that an individual may try to ignore or disregard signs of these issues. These stigmas can originate from a number of places, including an individual’s upbringing and their family’s attitudes toward mental health and addiction or even a general misunderstanding about these issues. A particular challenge lawyers face is that we often view ourselves as society’s problem-solvers and, accordingly, any self-recognition of these issues could affect our own self-esteem or image.  

Even after one starts to internally come to grips with the fact that an issue exists—maybe it’s admitting to yourself that your anxiety is overwhelming, that you’re not as happy as you’d like to be, or that you’ve been drinking too much—there are still external stigmas that lawyers face that may impede seeking help. In fact, the ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford study states that the two most common barriers attorneys cited in the way of asking for help were (1) not wanting others to find out they needed help and (2) concerns regarding privacy or confidentiality. As a result, some attorneys may go years without asking for help for those very concerns.  

However, with mental health and substance use issues now on the forefront of today’s legal discussions, the general view about asking for help or support isn’t what it used to be. Now, well-being and taking care of oneself is an important priority and topic for education and discussion in our profession. Nowadays, there is profession-wide support for lawyers to be healthy. And taking actions to get yourself healthy should never be viewed as a negative.  

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A Counselor’s Perspective

In a discussion with Jill Carlson, MA, LPCC, and case manager at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, she explained what someone new to counseling should expect. Counseling sessions are usually held in a private setting. Right now, most counseling sessions are still virtual; however, face-to-face sessions are slowly returning. Most therapy sessions are 45 to 50 minutes in length, but some therapists prefer longer first sessions of up to 90 minutes. Sessions can start off as weekly, biweekly, or monthly, depending on a number of factors.  

The whole client/therapist intake process is very similar to when a new client retains an attorney, with information gathering done first via questionnaires and initial meetings. Next, goals are established and a road map to meeting those goals is set.   

Jill explained that, throughout the process, attention is given to the client’s history (mental health and/or substance use, family, social, professional, etc.), how the existing issues are affecting the individual’s life (symptoms, behaviors, consequences, etc.), and how the client and the therapist—together as a team—can meet the client’s goals.

Next, Jill and I discussed the importance of confidentiality. The trust and confidentiality shared between a therapist and client is a principal part of the counseling experience, as clients must be able to trust that the information shared with their counselor will not be shared with anyone else. With that being said, most counselors are mandatory reporters and must report immediate threats regarding a client’s health and safety, so please make sure that is discussed with your counselor.

Finally, we discussed the biggest benefit to counseling: achieving one’s goals. Whether your goal is to overcome your anxiety, not to drink anymore, to be a better family member, or to just be the best lawyer you can be, counseling can definitely be one of the biggest tools in your well-being toolbox! 

If you have further questions about counseling or would like to schedule free therapy sessions, please call Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) at 651-646-5590. We provide up to four free counseling sessions per issue for lawyers, law students, judges, and their immediate family members. As always, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is confidential and no information is shared with licensing boards, employers, or anyone else.  


Chase-Andersen-150Chase Andersen
candersen@mnlcl.org

Chase Andersen is a case manager at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Minnesota. He works with lawyers, law students, and judges on issues surrounding well-being, mental health, and substance use. www.mnlcl.org

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