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How is wellness advocacy progressing in the US legal profession?
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How is wellness advocacy progressing in the US legal profession?

A Wisconsin-based psychotherapist has outlined how American lawyers are faring in combating psychological ill-health, in contrast to the Australian profession.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Dr Dawn D’Amico – who practices psychotherapy in Hartland, Wisconsin and has specialised in trauma for two decades – said the Australian and American experiences are “quite similar”.

“I think the way things came about were in many ways in parallel: America having the studies first and then Australia having people speaking out, such as the Honorable Judge Michael Kirby, actively sharing their own experiences.”

“In America, we have some great people who are slowly coming out to talk about these issues. One of these people is attorney Daniel Lukasik, who not only shares his story of depression but also created an incredibly dynamic website where he interviews lawyers and other professionals on this subject, as well as does book reviews, etc.”

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“Both countries, America and Australia, have many wonderful people who have contributed significantly; however, another issue that [these countries] still have in common is the issue of stigma and fear of being viewed as vulnerable if they reveal mental health issues,” she added.

Dr D’Amico believes that the prevalence of psychological distress, anxiety and depression in the legal profession and its causes in America are the same not just in Australia, but also in Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

“It is clear from studies in all of the above countries that psychological distress, anxiety, depression, alcohol and other drug issues and even suicide are very similar. These are very real issues which are impacting many people. One only has to reference the [American Bar Association] 2016 study, or the Australian Mind Body Institute Study or studies done by lawyer Kayleigh Leonie among junior lawyers in the UK,” she recounted.

“The studies completely show the evidence cannot be disputed at this point because the data are so similar across empirical studies of the last 30 years. The causes of these issues are also the same – workload issues, lack of work life balance, adversarial work environments, bullying, incivility, loss and or change in personal values, dramatic concern regarding disclosure and stigma of mental health issues and finally secondary trauma which again is highly stigmatised.”

When asked what initiatives are in place in the United States, Dr D’Amico said that lawyer assistance programs are offered, similar to our employee assistance programs.

“The individuals who run these programs are truly passionate, caring and helpful. With that being said, big law firms have a long way to go. There is a lot of chatter out there among big firms not only in the US but around the world about health and wellbeing and yes, a firm can sign a charter to be mindful or compassionate or other but what are they really doing? Unfortunately, in most cases, nothing,” she said.

“In the course of [writing my new] book, I have interviewed many people that are exceeding 2,000 billable hours! And it is expected of them! The pressure to achieve, be perfect and not have a life outside of the firm is very real. Also, the stigma surrounding any sign of weakness by many is considered a failure so individuals will not talk about stress or mental health issues and just keep pushing forward until they no longer can.”

One of the biggest issues still confronting the American legal profession, however – in addition to the aforementioned stigma – is secondary trauma, Dr D’Amico posited.

“The best way to overcome secondary or vicarious trauma is to talk about it – debrief, so to speak. This can be done with a colleague or a professional psychotherapist. If one is having reoccurring thoughts, images or just can’t move forward it is important to seek professional therapeutic help,” she said.

“Other things that can be done is really creating a life of balance and taking care of oneself in all of the critical and essential ways –eating, sleeping, social time with family and friends, downtime, mediation, prayer – all of these build strength and resilience.”

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