It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, and we at FindLaw want to emphasize the importance of maintaining mental health.

If you’re a high-functioning professional within the legal field or outside of it, you may think you’re not at risk of a mental health crisis. But if you’re familiar with the tragic tale of Robert Dart, recently reported by the Wall Street Journal, you may appreciate that being successful does not make one immune from serious mental health hits — and that they can come out of nowhere.

Robert Dart’s Tragic Tale

For most of his life, Rob Dart was one of the last people you might expect to be unhoused, on the streets, and listening to voices in his head. He excelled in numerous undertakings as a youth. He was co-captain of his high school football team and co-president of the academic club. He earned prizes in science fairs and for his writing. He attended one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, the University of Chicago Law School. He had a wife and son and was a successful lawyer in SoCal.

Until age 35, Rob was the poster child of success. But his story quickly became one of riches to rags when he started hearing voices in his head. After his marriage fell apart, he returned to his East Coast childhood home and turned to his parents for help. He lived with his family for two years as he convalesced from psychosis. His sister said in an interview, “When I used to see homeless people, I thought, ‘Where’s their family? Why won’t their family come and help them?” Unfortunately, when it comes to mental health, it isn’t always so straightforward getting people the help they need.

He tried medication and therapy while making regular visits to his young son. After moving back to California, he started working as a lawyer again. But in 2022, he quit therapy and his meds – and the voices returned.

Rob is now 44. In the past year, he’s been unhoused, hospitalized, lost his share of custody of his son after his wife filed a restraining order, and even been shot (an unfortunate freak accident). He doesn’t think he has a mental illness, refuses treatment and medication, and even refuses to see his family, who he thinks are colluding against him.

Mental Health in the Workplace

Rob’s story should serve as a clarion call for us all, including legal professionals, to take mental health seriously. It shouldn’t surprise you that the attorney lost his law firm job within months of going off treatment. Since then, the state of California suspended him from the practice of law. Of course, mental illness comes with much more dire consequences than just falling off your prestigious career trajectory. The altered thoughts, emotions, and behaviors often affect your relationships and can break your family, cause financial problems, and even jeopardize your physical health.

Even if you don’t have symptoms as noticeable as those of Rob’s psychosis, mental health can come in many flavors, and some are subtle. Stress, for example, may seem like something everyone experiences, but certain forms of stress can be detrimental to mental health or trigger worse conditions. Unsurprisingly, chronic stress is correlated with higher rates of anxiety and depression, but it’s also been potentially linked to the progression of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

There’s no shortage of sources of stress in our lives, but perhaps the biggest one is work-related. A 2020 study by Statistica found that the most common cause of stress is work-related issues and that 79% of adults frequently experience work-related stress. Especially since the pandemic, 45% of workers in the UK think their work was suffering due to their poor mental health, according to a 2022 report by the ADP Research Institute.

Another survey found that people who had high-stress jobs had an 80% higher risk of developing depression within a few years than people with lower stress. So many of us have stressful jobs, regardless of what industry we’re in. But in the legal field, especially in law firms, high-stress jobs are exacerbated by a historical stigma against taking care of mental health and an expectation to just “suck it up.” That gets exacerbated by long and unpredictable hours away from your family and a “work hard, play hard” culture where employees are pressured to attend work outings and parties flowing with free booze.

Changes Slow, Results to be Seen

This has been changing in recent years, though, and some of the biggest law firms are now offering things like mindfulness sessions, mental health training, alcohol-free social options, and therapy resources for employees. The bad news? It might not be enough.

Law.com conducts an annual Mental Health Survey, and the results look grim. The 2023 data set included almost 3,000 lawyers who were asked questions about mental health in relation to their firm’s culture and policies. 38.2% of them said they were depressed, which increased from 35% in 2022. Similarly, 71.1% of lawyers surveyed said they had anxiety, up 5% from 2022. 31.2% of lawyers said they had other mental health issues — which was twice as much as the year before (14.6%). In other words, the study showed that despite the fact that firms are trying to eradicate the stigma and offer more mental health resources, mental health issues among lawyers are still going up.

Does that mean Big Law folks are on the path to a mental breakdown? Not necessarily. It may be too early to tell how effective law firms’ recent efforts are. While firms may have stepped it up, trauma from the pandemic is potentially undoing some of that effect. There’s also often a very slow change in law firm culture, and even official policies don’t trickle down to the individual level that fast.

For the time being, it is still as important as ever to make sure you’re putting your mental well-being first.

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