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Mindgames: What Can We Do About Lawyers’ Mental Health?

Law as stated: 8 December 2023 What is this? This episode was published and is accurate as at this date.
Friend of the podcast, Dr Phoebe Norville joins David in Curiosity to breakdown mental health in legal practice. Touching on the prevalence of mental health issues among lawyers presenting to GPs and some common sources and solutions.
Professional Skills Professional Skills
Phoebe Norville
Hyde Park Medical
1 hour = 1 CPD point
How does it work?
What area(s) of law does this episode consider?Mental health and physical wellbeing in legal practice
Why is this topic relevant?Looking at the statistics on mental health among lawyers can be grim reading. Beginning in law school budding lawyers have some of the worst mental health among their peers. In 2019, one study found 96% of law students reported significant stress, compared to 70% of medicine students and 43% of graduate students.

As law school progresses, the rates of diagnosed mental health issues – like depression – skyrocket. From a base of less than 10% on entry to 40% after three years of study. And legal professionals fair little better. Among legal professionals, one US study put the rates of drug and alcohol abuse at nearly one in three.

So what is the law doing to us that makes these issues so common? And what can we do about them when we spot them?

What are the main points?
  • Australian lawyers can experience significant mental health issues, starting in law school with high stress levels, and worsening mental health over the course of their studies.
  • Legal professionals have high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, with some studies indicating nearly one-third of lawyers are affected.
  • Mental health concerns in the legal profession can lead to risky behaviors, substance dependencies, and diminished wellbeing.
  • A significant proportion of legal professionals’ mental health issues are work-related, including the adversarial nature of legal work and vicarious trauma from exposure to distressing material.
  • Lawyers often suffer from burnout, characterized by fatigue, poor motivation, and dread of going to work, coupled with sleep disturbances like nightmares and difficulty maintaining sleep.
  • The adversarial process and a focus on winning versus losing in the law can contribute to heightened anxiety and self-esteem issues.
  • Younger lawyers, in particular, exhibit higher levels of anxiety and mental health issues, whereas older lawyers may experience substance abuse and physical health problems alongside established coping mechanisms.
  • Cultures of excessive drinking and long working hours are prevalent in the legal profession, contributing to poor mental health and physical health issues.
  • There are several self-help strategies lawyers can employ for mental health: meditation, gratitude exercises, improving diet and nutrition, engaging in physical exercise, and seeking social interactions outside of work.
  • Both men and women legal professionals may present mental health concerns differently, with women often expressing anxiety and fatigue and men displaying symptoms of depression alongside other physical health issues.
What are the practical takeaways?
  • Meditation, mindfulness, and counseling can help legal professionals manage stress and maintain a healthier work-life balance.
  • It’s crucial to create more flexible and supportive work environments in the legal profession to enhance mental health and productivity.
  • Remote work, while offering flexibility, can exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety and social isolation if not balanced with in-person interactions.
  • Lawyers have access to a range of support services, including crisis counseling, psychology sessions, and employee assistance programs, all aimed at improving the mental health and wellbeing of legal professionals.
Show notesSleep and Mental Health, Harvard Medical School, 2021 (link)

Headspace app (link)

Calm app (link)

This Way Up (link)

Head to Health (link)

Law Society of NSW resources (link)