Taking Notice: Making it OK to Talk about Mental Health

As I pulled into a parking spot at the grocery store, my cell phone rang. Glancing down at the caller ID, I saw it was my friend and former colleague Melissa. I loved talking to Melissa – she was one of my first hires years ago as a new manager for a legal publisher, and she was a bright, superstar attorney who impressed us all with her poise that suggested she was much older than her early 30s. Like many other attorneys, Melissa sought an alternative career in law after going the law firm route. She desired a more “humane” work/life balance and working for a well-respected legal publisher seemed to satisfy that need for a few years. She had recently been offered an in-house legal role at a small, family-owned business, and I was excited to hear how that new adventure was going.

I picked up the phone and said, “Hi Melissa – how are you?”

A voice I didn’t recognize said, “Hi Kate. This is Melissa’s husband Steve. I have some terrible news.”

Melissa had taken her own life at the age of 35.  

I can’t tell you how it feels to receive a call like that. It’s an indescribable feeling that no one should ever have to experience—and a feeling you don’t ever want to have again.

Unfortunately, Melissa’s is not the first story like this in the legal profession. The statistics are staggering, and the stories are heartbreaking. Lawyers have some of the highest suicide rates of all professions and lawyers struggle with a high rate of depression and anxiety (and those are just the ones who seek help). 

While lawyers are not the only ones who struggle with depression and other mental health issues, and lawyers are not alone in showing a reticence for getting help, the message that it’s not OK to seek help for mental health struggles starts early for those thinking of a career in law. In fact, historically, law school graduates were asked on bar admissions forms if they had ever sought treatment for depression or other mental health issues. To ensure they wouldn’t be flagged for having “character and fitness issues,” making them ineligible to obtain a license to practice law, the correct answer was “No”. It was well ingrained in future lawyers to just “tough it out”. 

However, in response to the suicides of several high-profile attorneys in recent years, many prominent law firms have publicly pledged to do a better job of raising awareness and providing programs to help their lawyers and legal staff deal with mental health issues. Every major bar association (including the ABA) has some kind of lawyer’s assistance program aimed at providing referrals or resources for lawyers experiencing an issue or crisis. The ABA formed a Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession in late 2017, and many large law firms signed the ABA pledge to change the conversation around mental health issues and provide real solutions. But is it enough?  

We all have a part to play in the success of our colleagues. No, it’s not our responsibility to solve their personal challenges, but we do need to be on the lookout for the common warning signs of depression and anxiety— a bleak outlook, appetite or weight changes, anger or irritability, loss of energy, and concentration problems, to name a few. We need to make it a habit to check in on each other, to make sure everyone is helping each other along. How many times has a colleague appeared very stressed, overly tired, more short-tempered or just sad and we just chalk it up to a busy lifestyle and work stress?

The National Alliance on Mental Health estimates that one in five Americans will experience mental illness, so there’s a good chance you work with somebody (or you are that somebody) experiencing those challenges. It can be tricky to talk about such personal issues in the workplace, but there are some steps to take if you notice a colleague struggling:

  • Observe – Are you seeing common signs of depression or anxiety or just a bad day? Don’t jump to conclusions about the cause of the changes or make an amateur diagnosis. Start paying more attention to that person’s patterns and behaviors to determine if the its just a bad mood or can potentially something more serious.
  • Inquire and ask questions – Check in and ask if things are all right and if there’s anything you can do to help. Don’t say “You seem depressed” or “Are you having mental health issues?” Coming on too strong will likely deter your colleague from opening up.
  • Don’t push – Let your colleague decide if and how much they want to share. If they say they don’t want to go into details, don’t push it. Let them come to you if/when they become ready.
  • Listen – If your colleague decides to be open about their feelings, the best thing you can do is to listen without judgment. You can share your own experience if that is relevant and you feel comfortable doing so, but you don’t need to give advice.
  • Set boundaries, if necessary – You can’t and shouldn’t be your colleague’s therapist. Let them know you are sympathetic and a listening ear. Point them in the direction of professional help if they keep coming to you for help or you think there may be a bigger issue.
  • Know when to bring in another party – If someone is talking about hurting themselves, it is important that you address that and let them know there is help. Contact your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or HR department to get a professional involved.
  • Lead by example – Make it OK to ask about each other by doing it yourself. Make people aware of your employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if there is one as a source of help for anybody going through a difficult situation (divorce, death of a parent or spouse, financial difficulties, etc.) Make it known that everyone should care about the well-being of their team members.

We’ve all heard the mantra “Think globally, act locally”—and I think it applies here. If we take the time to truly pay attention, dig a little deeper and reserve judgment with our colleagues and friends, we can help to destigmatize mental health and make it easier for people to seek help.

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