From working with clients who have lost a child to handling a high-profile multimillion dollar case, the job can take its toll on a lawyer’s emotional health.
The South Carolina Bar is now offering free training to attorneys who can help identify potential emotional meltdowns in their peers before they get too serious. Mental Health First Aid is intended to identify a potential issue and refer someone to Lawyers Helping Lawyers, a program that bar associations nationwide, including South Carolina, have offered for years.
South Carolina was one of the first state bar associations to form a wellness committee to develop programs to help members take care of their mental and physical health—and to remind them occasionally to pause to take care of themselves.
Beginning this year, the South Carolina Bar is providing funding and training for the Mental Health First Aid. So far in 2019, four training sessions have been offered, with 78 lawyers completing the program. Another session is planned for late September in Beaufort. The program offers 7.5 hours of CLE training.
Individual law firms statewide have taken similar wellness initiatives for their employees. The South Carolina Bar is among the first states in the nation to develop this program specifically for attorneys. The Florida Bar started offering Mental Health First Aid training in 2018.
Beth Padgett, co-director of Lawyers Helping Lawyers, said the mental health first aid training caught on quickly following the bar’s first email blast announcing it. She said by the end of the next day after the email went out, all 25 spaces were full.
“The energy in the room and the excitement and the appreciation of the material was just delightful. We couldn’t have been happier,” Padgett said.
Padgett said she got the idea for mental health first aid for legal professionals from Robyn Ellison, a mental health first aid instructor and education coordinator for Prisma Health Upstate. Ellison offered the program for other occupations such as law enforcement, and suggested developing a program specifically for attorneys.
“It’s very much like learning CPR,” Padgett said. “You’re learning how to recognize symptoms of various mental illnesses and stress-related disorders, substance abuse disorders and being given a simple intervention to use with your colleague, if you see them in distress, to give them some comfort and assurance and also be able to refer them to somebody … to get the help they need for whatever it is they’re struggling with.”
Those issues include compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma that could eventually lead to deeper emotional problems or, for some, substance abuse. Padgett said lawyers are taught to maintain poise, control and composure through extreme circumstances, and if that stress causes an emotional outburst, they think there’s something wrong with them.
“But there’s nothing wrong with them. They just don’t have the skills necessary in order to put them in the proper perspective, to honor the client’s pain but also to honor the work that you’re doing and develop a process of your own for clearing this at the end of the day,” Padgett said.
Padgett said internalizing emotions caused by the stress of the job can lead to burnout and a lack of interest. She said it’s been a difficult process to get lawyers to ask for help.
“We’re still working on reducing the stigma of lawyers asking for help, but it’s better than it used to be, and more lawyers are asking for help,” she said. “More lawyers are intervening with their peers and encouraging them to get help, and then more lawyers are just making the phone calls themselves to us asking what we have to offer.”
Some of the hesitation for lawyers to ask for help comes from concern over privacy. Padgett said all the programs offered by the South Carolina Bar maintain client privacy laws. The bar offers five free confidential counseling sessions a year to its members contracted through a private Employee Assistance Program.
“We are only here to help attorneys to be whole and healthy and to be able to maintain their license and practice well,” she said.
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