Raul Ayala, Bree Buchanan, and Terry L. Harrell (from left) present a workshop on mental health and substance abuse issues in the legal profession during the National Conference of Bar Presidents annual meeting in San Francisco.

A groundbreaking 2016 study on substance abuse and mental health problems among licensed attorneys is a call to action and a reminder that more must be done to remove the stigma that keeps people from seeking help. That was the message from panelists August 5 at a session during the National Conference of Bar Presidents annual meeting in San Francisco.

The study, by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, found that lawyers’ rates of substance abuse and mental health issues far surpass those of other professions and the general public—and that newer lawyers are struggling the most. (Click here for a Texas Bar Journal story on the study.)

The problems are too big for one state to solve alone, said Terry L. Harrell, chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and executive director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program. “It’s going to take every area of the bar working at this if we are going to make significant cultural change,” she said.

Panelist Bree Buchanan, director of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, detailed the challenges facing lawyers, including the risk of suicide. The study found that 11.5 percent of respondents had suicidal thoughts while 0.7 percent had attempted suicide. “Too many lawyers are taking their lives because they can’t find another resolution,” Buchanan said.

States provide confidential lawyer assistance programs to address these issues, but many attorneys don’t seek help for fear of being referred to a disciplinary body—or of simply being “found out,” Buchanan said. “Really what it boils down to is stigma, and this is something that is plaguing the behavioral health world, regardless of the profession,” she said.

The panel, which also included ABA CoLAP Advisory Committee member Raul Ayala of Los Angeles, encouraged audience members to share ways that their local and state bar associations are confronting these issues. Buchanan noted that State Bar of Texas Immediate Past President Allan K. DuBois, who was in the audience, devoted his term to attorney well-being and helped the bar raise more than $500,000 for the Sheeran-Crowley Memorial Trust, an organization that funds substance abuse and mental health treatment for lawyers who can’t afford it.

The ABA-Hazelden study—the most comprehensive research ever done on the topic—is helping raise awareness of both the problems facing the profession and the resources available to help, panelists said. But too many people are still unaware or wary of lawyer assistance programs or mistakenly think they only address drug or alcohol problems, Harrell said. “Please help us get the word out that our services are very, very broad and that the help is confidential,” she said.