David E. Crawford
Chair, BAMSL Well-Being Committee, 2019-20
Patent Attorney/Founding Member, Crawford IP Law
Originally published in the August 2019 issue of the St. Louis Lawyer magazine. View in the archives.
Some of you might wonder why BAMSL needs a Well-Being Committee. After all, what does wellness and well-being have to do with practicing law? BAMSL leadership organized the committee in response to concerns about epidemics affecting lawyer health.
A study commissioned by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation confirmed that American lawyers suffer from mental health concerns, including depression and substance abuse, at higher rates than the general population. The statistics are stark, and lawyers avoid seeking help due to societal stigmas surrounding these illnesses and their concern for protecting a professional image.
The Well-Being Committee consists of BAMSL members who seek to improve lawyer well-being.
In addition to warning lawyers about these mental health epidemics and striving to eliminate the stigma associated with these medical conditions, the committee educates lawyers about ways to improve mental health and protect themselves from falling victim. You are invited to join the committee if you want to help plan events and programming to accomplish our mission. Learn more about the committee at www.BAMSL.org/WellBeing.
Here are descriptions of ways to improve attorney well-being. Most of us are familiar with many of these ways.
Some of us flagellate ourselves for not doing things that we know are good for us. Negative self-talk is self-defeating if our goal is improved mental health. A better approach is to deliberately adopt these suggestions by adding them into our routines little by little over time until they become a habit. Should we fail at incorporating a suggestion, we can start again or move onto a different suggestion.
Incorporating all the suggestions into our lives is not the goal. The goal should be to find ways to improve our emotional resilience. Improving resilience is an antidote to the effects of stress inherent in our profession. By improving resilience, we can improve our mental health.
- Chief among ways to care for our mental health is caring for our physical health. Eat right, get enough sleep, and get physical exercise. If you are like most of us, achieving these basics can be challenging. Making small improvements over time is helpful not only in the short term but also in creating a lasting routine. Physical activity enhances happiness and staves off depression and anxiety. Both resistance training and aerobic exercise are beneficial. Taking part in a group activity can increase the likelihood of maintaining an exercise routine. Seeing a doctor for an annual physical exam is also part of caring for our physical health as is seeing a doctor when we are ill.
- Meditation, such as mindfulness, reduces stress, depression and anxiety. Although mindfulness can take other forms, one method is to sit in a quiet place and focus on some aspect of your breath. Your mind will wander. When your mind wanders, recognize that it has and re-focus on the breath. Practicing mindfulness for as little as 6 minutes a day has been found to produce positive results. The practice has been found to improve attention as well as reduce rumination on past negative events and rehearsing future events that may never come. Other activities such as yoga can provide similar benefits. Of the several practices mentioned in this article, meditation may be most powerful for improving mental health.
- Developing close relationships also improves mental health. Having close relationships reduces isolation, burnout and depression, and correlates with reduced stress and increased longevity. Performing acts of kindness for others can reduce negative emotions and increase happiness. Savoring positive emotions provide mental health benefits. Take time to reflect on successes. Even 10 or 15 seconds of positive reflection can be beneficial. Learning to manage negative thoughts and emotions may be beneficial. Engaging in continuous learning and pursuing creative or intellectually challenging activities that foster ongoing development can improve cognitive wellness.
- We should avoid risky drinking. Not only can risky drinking lead to addiction, but it also significantly increases the odds of developing depression and anxiety. Men and women metabolize alcohol differently, so different rates of drinking are considered risky for different genders. For men, risky drinking is consuming more than four drinks in a day or 14 drinks per week. For women, risky drinking is consuming more than three drinks in a day or seven drinks per week. When assessing risky drinking, one should keep in mind that 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer is considered one drink.
- Most importantly, we should seek help for mental health when needed. Periodically talking to a mental health professional can be helpful, even when you are not in crisis. Talking to a mental health professional may even avert crisis. Taking care of our mental health improves the chances for living a happy life and being there for our clients when they need us.