As the economic downturn takes its toll on the legal profession, more than just jobs are on the line.
As the recession deepened, the N.C. Bar Association began to see some alarming numbers: More and more attorneys needing help for mental-health or substance-abuse issues – a 20 percent increase in calls to the association’s confidential hotline from 2008 to 2009.
And with only 25 counties covered under BarCARES, a program that allows three free visits to a mental-health professional, the directors decided to expand the program. Since January, NCBA members throughout the state have had access to the service, regardless of whether their local bar has chosen to participate.
“We saw a big spike in our referrals,” said Court of Appeals Judge Robert N. Hunter Jr., president of BarCARES Inc. “All of us became concerned that there were people who need psychological help who might not be getting it.”
Judge Hunter said that about 9,000 of the 15,000 members of the NCBA were covered under BarCARES programs that were active. “We had a gap,” he said.
Under the new program, NCBA members who live in districts that have chosen not to participate in the program can still get the help they need. The program is available to lawyers who do not have mental-health coverage.
The BarCARES program is separate from the Lawyers Assistance Program, a service of the N.C. State Bar that provides confidential referrals for attorneys suffering from addiction or mental-health disorders.
The Lawyers Assistance Program relies on a support group of over 200 lawyers who are ready to share their experiences with their own difficulties with addiction or mental illness. With 636 active case files, the Lawyers Assistance Program has also seen an increase in referrals in recent months.
One key to the success of both programs is confidentiality. No information about the referral is ever revealed.
“People are very concerned about confidentiality in the legal profession,” said Anne Arberg, program manager for HRC Behavioral Health and Psychiatry, the provider group that contracts with BarCARES. “The only data that gets back to the bar is statistical and demographic.”
When an attorney calls the toll-free number for BarCARES, he or she will speak to someone with HRC.
“I determine what part of the state they’re in and what the problem is,” Arberg said. “I usually try to talk with then long enough to get a feel for what kind of person they would work well with.”
She then gets in touch with the provider and gives the attorney the name and number of who to call. “We can even provide telephone counseling if they don’t want to go in and see someone.”
Usually the referrals are made to a psychologist but sometimes a psychiatrist is needed, particularly if the attorney needs medication.
“One of the biggest keys is, ‘I haven’t been able to sleep in three or four days,'” Arberg said. In rare cases, she said, the situation is severe enough that the attorney is sent to a professional on that same day.
The BarCARES program complements the Lawyers Assistance Program, which is available through the N.C. State Bar.
“The economic downturn has increased in the amount of stress on lawyers, and stress is a factor in substance-abuse and mental-health issues,” he said.
Merritt said the three mental-health professionals on staff – one to cover each region of the state – will make sure a caller gets referred to the right kind of help and gets connected to the support group of attorneys who are in recovery.
The support group is divided into those who help with mental-health issues (called Friends) and those who deal with substance abuse (PALS).
Attorneys who can share their own success stories about dealing with depression or alcoholism are immensely helpful, Merritt said. “They have a heightened sense … that these are diseases, that it’s not a character flaw or a choice.”
John Sarratt knows firsthand. The Raleigh attorney, who is in recovery from alcoholism, is a volunteer with the PALS group.
He first called BarCARES more than eight years ago to deal with other issues in his life, and later got involved the Lawyers Assistance Program to deal with “what ended up being my real problem, which was alcoholism.”
“There’s no question about being able to talk to someone who has been through it,” he said. “You’re talking to someone who isn’t just being empathetic; they’ve been there. And they’ve had a successful result.”
For his part, Sarratt, who is on the board of directors of BarCARES and helps conduct CLEs on quality-of-life issues, continues to check in with a BarCARES counselor.
“I’m one of those people who uses my three visits a year,” he said. “It’s a mental-health checkup.”
Hunter said that studies have shown that lawyers may be more likely to suffer from depression or substance-abuse issues than the general population, and twice as likely to think of suicide as an alternative.
“Suicide is a greatly underreported thing,” he said. “Every year there are suicides in our profession.”
Lawyers tend to be Type-A personalities “who go though a legal education that ranks them from 1-200, which brings out their most competitive qualities,” Hunter said.
“They have a win/lose mentality. And then there is the financial pressure to produce income. … You put all that together, and it creates a brew that can be unhealthy,” he said.
But the good news, according to Hunter, is that when lawyers seek help for problems, they have a high success rate.