Guest Post Bridget M. Fuselier
Professor of Law, Baylor University School of Law
Leading by example. We often use that phrase, but what does it mean? In my experience, we most often think if we model practices and traits we want to see in our students or young lawyers we mentor, then we can lead them to adopt those behaviors. When it comes to professionalism, civility, ethics, and hard work, most of us do a good job of leading by example. But what about when it comes to mental health?
In February 2016, The Journal of Addiction Medicine published a study conducted by Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. The study reported that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualified as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggled with some level of depression, and 19 percent demonstrated symptoms of anxiety. The study found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibited the highest incidence of these problems.
In a 2018 Legal Trends Report prepared by Clio, 75% of lawyers reported frequently or always working outside of regular business hours, and that 39% of lawyers say these long hours negatively affected their personal lives. Additionally, according to the Dave Nee Foundation, new law school students exhibit rates of depression around 8-9%—but after three years in law school, 40% of students are depressed.
During the past 18 months plus, we have all had a lot of time with our thoughts, both positive and negative. The isolation, anxiety, confusion, and fear has left us all mentally exhausted. It has also helped us to refocus on our own physical and mental health and the importance of self-care. As we have been gradually going back to “normal,” are we leading by example? Taking time for our mental health is just as important as our physical health. And our mental health does actually impact physical health. According to one article, “mental health plays a huge role in your general well-being. Being in a good mental state can keep you healthy and help prevent serious health conditions. A study found that positive psychological well-being can reduce the risks of heart attacks and strokes. On the other hand, poor mental health can lead to poor physical health or harmful behaviors.” Depression has been linked to diabetes, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis. Mental health conditions also contribute to sleep disorders like insomnia.
As leaders, we have to model good habits of self-care and prioritizing mental health. If we are open to talking about mental health, it will open up a dialogue for those who look to us as examples. I have found that when I open up about my own challenges, others feel more comfortable about taking care of themselves and seeking the care they need. However, if you are not comfortable sharing your own experiences, there are still ways to meaningfully connect and engage. Here are some examples that I have used and received positive feedback from students:
- Sharing relevant articles regarding mental health can provide information to students and open the door for conversation. The ABA often has great articles like the one found at this link, https://www.lawpracticetoday.org/article/managing-depression/, that can be used as a resource.
- On Mondays, start class with a “Motivation Monday” power point slide. I find a funny meme or inspirational quote to get the week started. It is a fun way to not only show a human side but to maybe brighten someone’s day that isn’t going so well.
- At final exam time, share prayers, scriptures, inspirational quotes, or words of encouragement to let students know they are not alone, and we understand the stress.
- Communicate with students that you are a safe person to turn to if they need to talk about mental health challenges and get help finding resources.
If we want to be good leaders today, and cultivate good leaders for tomorrow, let’s prioritize mental health and end the stigma.
– Bridget Fuselier