From the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand. From the inside looking out, it’s hard to explain.
A month ago, we were all abuzz about the high-profile suicides of two individuals that appeared to have everything going for them. For a few weeks, the stigma around mental health and depression was broken. Society was talking about it, posting about it and reading about it.
That brief period reminded us that mental health issues do not discriminate. Education, gender, race, profession, wealth and status are arbitrary barriers when it comes to mental health. It is widely reported that lawyers experience depression and substance abuse at levels higher than the general population. There are even studies documenting how law students are coming out of law school with significant mental health issues that were not present when they began.
Despite the wealth of evidence that lawyers are at high risk for depression and substance abuse, in 2016 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the legal profession was not ranked as the top profession for suicide. As the president of a women’s organization, I found it interesting that rates for suicide were higher among males than females in all industries. This has been attributed to the fact that although women attempt suicide more, they are less successful because men use more violent means.
What was extremely alarming for women in our profession, however, is that the law ranked as women’s second highest industry for suicide. It was not even in the top 10 for men. Why?
The answer to this would be complex and require much more space than this article allows. Ask any woman in the profession, and the answers would be as varied as we are as a gender. The answers to what should we be doing about it would also be varied. We are very fortunate to have Lawyer Assistance Programs in New York. Our counterpart, the Monroe Country Bar Association, has wonderful programs in place to offer direct treatment for those in need of mental health treatment. There are websites dedicated solely for lawyers with depression.
Another article reminded me of what GRAWA brings to the table, an offering that is an integral part of her tapestry: SUPPORT.
Let me start by saying that I do not think GRAWA is a panacea for the mental health issues faced by lawyers, but our profession is lonely. The American Bar Association (ABA) recently had an article that discussed a study that found lawyers rank highest on the “loneliness scale” — a study from the University of California at Los Angeles.
This is not surprising given how the practice of law has evolved over time. Technology has reduced the opportunity for informal socialization at libraries, bars and other venues. Even when in a room with other lawyers, technology requires the work to continue. I can personally attest to the fact that I work from home four days a week and rarely have reason to interact with others even when in the office. From here start adding on the layers — let us just sum this all up as the mythical work-life balance and the emulation of the historic male workaholic model. The workaholic model has been physically and mentally stressing men for ages, even though it is a highly valued trait for employers. We are teetering on the cliff of burnout at every turn.
So why do I suggest taking on another activity? GRAWA was started by women on that cliff. There was a recognition that the women in our legal community needed each other and an organization that responded to their unique needs as women. GRAWA’s strength is in its ability to adapt to the needs of the membership. Not just the professional needs, the “human things” as my colleague referred to them as.
Two committees specifically come to mind: Family and Careers and Women’s Health. The first is a committee that offers support and friendship as members go through various life stages. There are unique issues for women when they get married, begin families, leave the profession and come back, raise teenagers, divorce, care for aging parents or transition into empty nesters.
Although focused on women, I know of one male member of WBASNY that joined because he identified needing support in balancing daycare, home schedules and work expectations. It is easy to feel alone during many life stages, but this committee specifically seeks to make sure members feel heard and supported. As one member told me recently, “The only thing I had in common with the moms at the mommy group was that I had a new baby. With GRAWA I can be a mom, but feel a sense of being with people that really get what I am going through.”
Our Women’s Health committee is one of our most active. Their focus is broad covering the recognition, prevention and education of issues related to women’s health and wellness. The wide mission and GRAWA’s flexibility allow the committee to go where its members need it to go. Ideas come organically while eating, drinking and sharing friendship.
Perhaps an issue that a member is facing, like breast cancer, grows into participating in a wellness fair and community walk. Or a postpartum member finds the baby blues were really more than just “feeling sad” and wants to help others know the signs and how to help. Sometimes it is as simple as a fun physical activity that one member wants to share with others — like yoga or spin class.
On July 20, this committee is partnering with the MCBA and RBBA to address the specific topic of suicide. “Suicidality: Recognizing the Signs of Suicide and How to Help” is a free lunch program to raise awareness and offer strategies to respond to someone in crisis. Although I have focused on the legal profession in this article, this is a program that any person could benefit from — and potentially save a life.
I want to end this article by pointing out one other thing about the support of GRAWA. Having the relationships with others, which is fostered by GRAWA, also creates the opportunity for others to recognize mental health issues in you. Sometimes, it is the concerned friend who can help you realize that the charade is over and professional mental health treatment is the next step.
“No (wo)man is an island” — although we feel isolated, we need to be part of a community to thrive.
Katie Courtney is an attorney advisor in the Social Security Administration’s Rochester Office of Hearings Operations. She is the 36th president of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys.