Paulette Brown, Immediate Past President of the ABA, was the keynote speaker at the recent ABA National Conference for Lawyer Assistance Programs in Vancouver. She also participated in a panel discussion and talked informally with conference attendees. She remarked on the outstanding work that Lawyer Assistance Programs are doing in this area, and that LAP resources and innovative approaches have helped many to find success in a profession that they love. Ms. Brown discussed the ABA Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission, with its focus on the concept of implicit biases, those unconscious influences on our decisions and actions. She noted that implicit bias can be and is manifested toward those who suffer from mental health issues, depression, anxiety and substance problems in our profession.
Here are some highlights of her remarks.
While there has been some progress on expanding opportunities for lawyers of all races and ethnicities, women and members of the LGBTQ community, the same cannot be said for those with mental illness or substance use disorders. As all of us here know, mental health and substance use disorders are by far the most pervasive and ignored disability issues in our profession. It is similar to issues faced by people in the LGBTQ community – you can’t tell by looking. It must be acceptable for people to ‘come out’ with mental health issues just as it is becoming acceptable to do so in the LGBTQ community.
Implicit bias and stigma force our colleagues into the shadows. It is important to address these conditions before they become issues. We cannot avoid them and hope they will go away. Our colleagues do not feel safe revealing a mental health or substance issue. Many will not seek the assistance they need unless and until the stigma is removed. This can only begin to happen if we recognize and acknowledge our implicit biases in this area. Like other areas of diversity and inclusion, the legal profession is far behind many other professions in the manner in which it treats those who struggle with mental health and substance use issues.
Implicit bias permeates everything we do. Lawyer Assistance Programs see it in the work they do every day where someone is treated differently (or perceives they are treated differently) because they asked for help. When we think about disability issues in our profession, mental health is by far the most common area of disability. It should be recognized in discussions, trainings and other efforts to enhance diversity and inclusion in our profession. Perhaps then people needing help can seek the attention they need with less trepidation about reaching out. It is the only way to remove stigma.
A discussion about open and equal treatment is necessary. These issues need to be part of conversations on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. It is not enough to be contained in this room or at this conference. We should not be reticent about talking about it anywhere, any place. All must work together to reduce stigma about mental health and substance issues in our profession. If we could convey this message over and over on a broad based stage, how many more could we serve?
And as LAPs we would add, how many more could we save?
This post was written by Joan Bibelhausen, Executive Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in Minnesota and ABA CoLAP Advisory Committee Member.