Believe it or not — lawyers are humans too. While mental health struggles are at an all-time high no thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, lawyers have been silently grappling with depression for eons. Long work hours, juggling daunting court cases, competing to be the best, and less time with family can really wear down one’s mental fortress. Thus, some lawyers abuse various substances as a coping mechanism. They feel hopeless.
Below, I’ve compiled statistics regarding lawyers and substance abuse. It’s unfortunate that so many hit rock bottom and feel that drugs are their only source of relief when there’s genuine, lasting, harm-free help out there.
Substance Abuse Statistics
According to American Addiction Centers’ website, “Depression has been reported to affect approximately 16 million American adults, which equals about 6.7% of the U.S. population.” They go on to report that about half of those diagnosed with depression also struggle with substance abuse. Now, here’s the lawyer side of things:
“More than 45 percent of attorneys experience depression during their career in the legal field. Of those individuals, nearly 12 percent of them reported having suicidal thoughts at least once. The major issues of substance abuse in attorneys can be directly attributed … to depression.”
Now, the AAC proceeds to break down these statistics for lawyers by substance, starting with alcohol. The AAC article I’m referencing talked about a recent study. Said study was conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. After answering a series of specific questions, over 36 percent of attorneys struggled with alcohol abuse. That’s not a small number.
Additionally, the study revealed that nearly half of the lawyers in the above study started drinking within the first 15 years of their career.
Prescription and illegal drug abuse
The American Addiction Centers also delved into prescription and illicit drug abuse among lawyers. Let’s start with prescription use. Obviously, it’s much easier to obtain prescription drugs. You only need a doctor’s note. Here’s what the AAC had to say:
“While this issue isn’t as common as alcohol addiction, 9% of attorneys have been found to struggle with prescription drug abuse.” Of course, lawyers work immensely long hours, even attempting to work late into the night. Dangers lurk in mixing prescription drugs (or drugs of any kind) with alcohol. This can lead to dependency and/or overdosing.
Now, illegal drug statistics among lawyers are much more difficult to attain. Why? Because admitting you use said drugs could lead to legal action and being disbarred. Your career and life are on the line. That being said, the AAC mentioned that illegal narcotics are abused by attorneys who struggle with mental health issues.
“… a large number of legal professionals still resort to things like cocaine, heroin, and others for relief from their depression and the weight of their job.”
Drug/alcohol abuse among lawyers versus other professions
So, it would appear that alcohol addiction is most prevalent among the lawyer community. Remember that Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study? That same study compared “problematic drinking behaviors” between legal and medical professionals. There’s a 21 percent difference between the two groups, with legal professionals sitting at the aforementioned 36 percent. Meanwhile, alcohol abuse in the medical field sits around 15 percent.
In addition, HBFF compared drinking behaviors between men and women in law versus the general populace. Both men and women were keener to grapple with alcohol addiction as lawyers than in any other profession. The most drastic difference is between women and the public. Judging by HBFF’s graph, a whopping 38 to 39 percent of female lawyers fell prey to alcohol addiction. On the flip side, women in other career fields suffered from “problematic drinking behaviors” at around 19 percent.
Here’s a quote from the HBFF study that says it all: “Attorneys and other legal professionals have been identified as a high-risk group for substance use disorders.”
The Damaging Effects
Now, I’m sure you gleaned a crash course in alcohol/narcotics abuse from your parents at some point. “Don’t drink, don’t do drugs, stay in school.” Perhaps someone from the D.A.R.E. program visited your school to highlight the adverse effects of drug use. But do you really know what happens to your body when abusing alcohol/narcotics overtime?
Alcohol long-term effects
According to healthline.com, alcohol can cause cancer, heart damage, behavioral changes, shrink your brain, lung infections, pancreatitis, liver problems, and much more. Those are just the heavy-hitters. Imagine working as a full-time lawyer while alcohol decimates your body. Your brain could shrink! This affects your frontal lobes, which are quite imperative for proper brain function. Another healthline article details exactly what your frontal lobes do:
“… the frontal lobe is responsible for higher cognitive functions such as memory, emotions, impulse control, problem-solving, social interaction, and motor function. Damage to the neurons or tissue of the frontal lobe can lead to personality changes, difficulty concentrating or planning, and impulsivity.”
As a lawyer, you need your brain to be in tip-top shape. Focus is vital! You need to stay sharp in order to work those long hours and juggle crucial court cases. Alcohol and narcotics may provide a brief respite, but they certainly won’t help keep your brain in peak condition.
Narcotics long-term effects
The AAC presented a piece about the permanent effects of drugs on the body. Firstly, it takes a hit on the respiratory system. Some effects include a respiratory cough, lung damage, asthma, pulmonary infection, bleeding from the lungs, and more. The heart and cardiovascular systems probably get it the worst, especially from a drug like cocaine. You can suffer from shortness of breath, raised blood pressure, drastically increase your risk for a heart attack, and chest pain.
Other drugs like meth also caused long-term damage to the body. Violent and unpredictable behavior, hallucinations, deteriorating motor coordination, and destroyed dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain are some of the side effects from meth.
Basically, narcotics can wreak just as much havoc on your body as alcohol. Lawyers need to keep their physical bodies in shape as well as their brains. Getting that quick fix only “alleviates” stress in the moment, but even a transient high can have everlasting consequences.
If you’re a lawyer and you’re suffering from depression and substance abuse in silence, just know that you don’t have to. There are plenty of resources to help you control your addiction and nurture your mental health. The AAC has a hotline on their homepage, should you need help recovering from addiction. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also has a national helpline.
Additionally, verywellmind.com boasts a list of wonderful virtual therapy resources for those who need them.
You don’t need to suffer alone. Lawyers aren’t superhumans devoid of emotions and basic human needs. No one is perfect. There’s hope. Recovery is attainable. You’re not alone.