What Do the Statistics About Lawyer Alcohol Use and Mental Health Problems Really Mean?

Author:Krill, Patrick
Position:Substance Abuse & Mental Illness

How is it possible that so many lawyers are alcoholics? If 30 percent of the lawyers in my firm were really depressed, why wouldn't they do something about it? Why are so many of us so unhealthy? As lead author of the 2016 ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford study on the prevalence of substance use and mental health disorders in the legal profession, (1) it will likely come as no surprise that I am frequently asked all sorts of questions about what the study findings really mean, and what the implications might be for lawyers, law firms, and the public we serve. In this article, I'll attempt to answer some of those questions, as well as offer some insights into the nature and impact of the unhealthy lifestyles that many lawyers begin to adopt as early as law school.

First, let's start with the numbers. Drawn from 19 states and all geographic regions in the country, survey responses from approximately 13,000 lawyers were included in our final data sample. Among our most significant findings were that a large percentage of currently practicing attorneys qualify as problem drinkers (between 21 and 36 percent), (2) and unacceptably high numbers are also struggling with depression, anxiety, and stress (28, 19, and 23 percent respectively). Younger lawyers are the most troubled and at-risk group, though no age bracket or experience level within the profession could even remotely be held out as an exemplar of good health.

Furthermore, we also uncovered the reasons why lawyers don't seek help for their mental health or substance use problems. Those reasons relate most often to fears about their reputation and others finding out they have a problem. The bottom line? All around and often hiding in plain sight, many lawyers are struggling, but too afraid to do anything about it. Many more, while perhaps not struggling with a diagnosable substance use or mental-health problem yet, are engaged in unhealthy behaviors that put them at risk for future problems and, at a minimum, greatly diminished well-being.

Now, a couple of important points of clarification, specifically about the findings related to depression and problem drinking. First, while it is clear from the language in our manuscript that 28 percent of lawyers are experiencing "mild or higher levels of depression," what we didn't make clear was that of that 28 percent, the majority are experiencing moderate, severe, or extremely severe depression. In other words, the problem of attorney depression is even worse than the...

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