TLAP in the coronavirus era
Written by Chris Ritter
This has been a historic year for mental health challenges to say the least, but few people have struggled like attorneys. Isolation is unhealthy on its own, but isolation combined with handling everyone else’s biggest life crises can be overwhelming. In a normal year, lawyers are at or near the top of the list in rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide. Considering the many extraordinary difficulties this past year has presented—including the COVID-19 pandemic, the extended periods of being homebound, the heightened anxiety related to elections and societal issues, family and common financial grief and loss, the heavy use of technology, the exposure to too much social media and news, the new/transformed style of practicing law remotely, and much more—it is remarkable that we are functioning as well as we are. Not to mention, we have been enduring this all without many of our normal tools for self-care.
The Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, or TLAP, has been doing all it can to help. When the pandemic began, the phones were unusually quiet as many were in a sort of “shock mode” securing the necessities like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and adjusting to the new normal. After a few weeks, calls reflected a heightened intensity of dire circumstances that has not subsided. The number of calls has fluctuated, but the severity of the issues faced by lawyers and law students has never been more consistently high. Attorneys facing financial devastation, the loss of a spouse or parent, or paralyzing depression due to isolation have been the norm.
Quarantining may keep us safe from the virus, but it is mentally very unhealthy. In a study of 129 participants during SARS quarantine, 28.9% had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and 31% had symptoms of depression1 (7.1% is the rate for the general population).2 Nearly half of all lawyers experience depression during their careers when life is normal.3 However, this quadrupling of the rate of depression in the general population because of quarantining should send a strong warning to our legal community that we must take these conditions seriously.
For TLAP, we have spent most of this year working to improve our service to many struggling lawyers, law students, and judges. We have become a presence in the Zoom universe with numerous monthly programs and have created more than 23 recorded hours of lawyer mental health support video programs that can be accessed at the TLAP Support Toolbox button at the top of our website at tlaphelps.org or directly at texasbar.com/tlapsupporttoolbox. The video programs we have produced feature experienced lawyers and licensed mental health professionals covering topics that include crisis fatigue, handling anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 era, grief and loss, boundaries during quarantine, well-being at home, COVID fatigue, and many more.
Additionally, the toolbox offers access to many online forms of group support, including Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, or LCL (independent support groups for lawyers and law students in or seeking recovery from substance use or other mental health struggles). These options provide lawyers, law students, and judges with solid access to peer support for mental health and substance use disorders from their homes.
We have also ramped up the use of our Facebook page (facebook.com/tlaphelps) as a hub to share online well-being support for lawyers and law students, including news about programs, events, and educational articles on how to handle the challenges we face.
To improve accessibility for lawyers, TLAP can now be reached by text or phone at 800-343-TLAP (8527). The text messaging option has made a difference for the many lawyers and law students who prefer not to talk when they are just seeking informational resources for their mental health or substance use support needs. We are also now able to connect attorneys, when needed, immediately to a licensed mental health professional for a telephonic counseling session as a bridge of support to help with the delay between the time that callers reach TLAP and when they are able to see their local professional.
Perhaps as important as any other TLAP development, during this past year TLAP produced a one-hour depression and suicide prevention video, which will be released in April and is planned to be a free CLE. This groundbreaking video is an educational documentary that we hope will captivate the attention of our legal world and save lives. A study by the U.S. Air Force found that suicide prevention training included in all military training reduced the mean suicide rate within the population studied by an unprecedented 21%,4 and TLAP hopes that this film will have a similar effect and save lives while providing essential education to our legal community. You will be able to find out how to watch this video at tlaphelps.org and on our Facebook page beginning in April.
We hope that these efforts help. I am honored to be a part of a team that includes the amazing Erica Grigg, who is now our lead TLAP professional, along with great new addition Michelle Fontenot, an attorney and TLAP’s clinical professional. All three TLAP attorneys now have substantive graduate-level educations in mental health counseling, and I cannot be more proud of the kindness and compassion of this new team.
All of that said, we recognize that one of the most serious obstacles to lawyer well-being is our lack of self-care. For that, here are three important tips. First, lawyers often have no time to take care of themselves. Nothing is more important than taking steps to make room in our difficult schedules for self-care. Do we not deserve 4% of our lives? That would be an hour each day. Few lawyers give themselves that kind of support. If we shoot for making even 1% of our lives about self-care, it can make a huge difference. Try using your calendar to put three things per week for an hour of self-care—social time with a friend, an exercise hour, an hour to enjoy a personal hobby, or anything else that fills you back up. These three hours of relief will pay off and reveal how much better life can be when we use our boundaries to value our self-care. Do you remember studying for the bar? If we studied more than eight to 10 hours per day, it was not worth it. We would overload and waste time. If we took some healthy breaks, hours less of studying actually resulted in more accomplished. This is how taking time for self-care works for lawyers.
Taking the time to fill back up is often the primary struggle for lawyers. Using your calendar to help is important, but limiting the things that take up your time unconsciously is also essential. We are getting 120 new emails per day and 94 text messages, along with letters, phone calls, faxes, etc. Social media eats away at our free time. Americans are averaging about 24 hours per week on the internet and nearly three and a half hours per day on our smartphones.5 To help find more time, try cutting back on technology by turning off notifications on your phone aside from essential applications, use “do not disturb” for personal time and self-care when possible, and stay away from your phone and social media in the evening and in bed.
A second critical self-care tip is finding someone to share your hardships with weekly. Therapists spend their first 3,000 hours of their practice debriefing weekly for an hour as part of their licensure requirements.6 It is no surprise that therapists, with the same trauma clients as lawyers, had much less stress. Lawyers need this debriefing. If you do not have a person that you can talk to weekly to discuss the things that you are struggling with, please find someone you can trust and debrief at least once per week. Whether by best friend, trusted lawyer confidant, or therapist, debriefing can make a world of difference.
Third, employ the positive-psychology skill of a gratitude practice. Lawyers are trained in law school to become masters at problem spotting. If there was a fact pattern on a law school exam and we could spot 100 issues, we would get an “A.” We need this skill to be good lawyers. However, problem spotting and looking for flaws can affect our perspective if we neglect our positive thinking. Use of a three-item gratitude journal every day can help you reflect on things you are grateful to have in your life, and one study showed it can decrease symptoms of depression by 50%.7 If you are feeling flat, try two weeks of gratitude journaling. It works.
As “quarinfinity” marches on, TLAP is here and cares. We want to support and encourage lawyers, law students, and judges. We are able to help connect struggling lawyers and law students to professional support, peer and group support, and even financial support for mental health or substance use disorder care by means of the Sheeran-Crowley Trust. We can be reached by phone or text at 800-343-TLAP (8527), and we are strictly confidential. If you or someone you know needs help, please consider us. TBJ