I am often asked how law firms can empower employees to be more comfortable coming forward with mental health issues. How can they break through the fear and stigma that inhibits the healing process? The firms want to be a part of that process. Many have tools to help with it.
There are wonderful, practical suggestions in the ABA Wellness Task Force report that I hope all law firms will look hard at implementing. The hard reality, however, is that for many, there are no magic words, pamphlets or statistics to make these fears go away. That will cause them to step out of their comfort zone. One reason is that it is that the underlying issues are often deep-seated. To face the surface issues means facing the darkness of the deep. A skin-tight suit of shame that may have been worn for years, maybe decades, possibly a lifetime.
The stigma surrounding addiction and depression has been a part of our society and ingrained into our collective psyche for many decades. For an employee, it may have started at home. Reinforced in social media. Shame can mean ten different things to ten different people when deciding whether to come forward with a mental health issue.
Here is the constant. Shame and stigma are more than the moment you see when an associate, partner or support employee reaches the apex of the struggle. When there are consequences. That story is easy to read. It’s right there in front of us. What was the story that brought him/her to crisis? Do you know any of it? A life journey you may know very little or nothing about. Why should you? No one asks about trauma or adverse childhood experiences in a legal job interview. Whether the prospective associate was bullied as a child or maybe abused. Whether they speak to their parents. How things are at home.
Of course, we should not ask those questions, but the answers are still part of the story that walks through those law firm doors the first day and can have an impact on performance and mental health from the get-go.
The answer is not to pry details. For the power of story to break the stigma of mental health struggle, it has to come from the storyteller because he/she wants to tell it. Make no mistake, we are all storytellers with the ability to channel that gift to draw others to tell theirs.
Many people who struggle. want to tell their story but they are too ashamed and afraid. They project out the worst possible response. They retreat back into their office to wait until the consequences catch up to the problem. A new chapter added to the story. Now a chapter, partly in someone else’s control, maybe the state disciplinary board, the law firm making a termination decision, or freedom at risk.
This is why the breaking of stigma and the empowering recovery in the law firm setting is more effective when it is top down through the encouraging of story-telling. It is an acknowledgment that even continuous wellness messaging may not be enough to break stigma to a degree where an employee will utilize the provided resources.
From the top down, start telling stories. Your stories. How can management expect a young associate to be vulnerable and ask for help if no one will take the same step and let them know they did. Who are the storytellers in the firm? Litigators love to tell stories. Are any of them willing to talk about their struggles? People are much more likely to seek out those that they share common story elements with than someone who is only a title. When its just a body, we project. Tell those stories. Let them know you are a life journey just like them. I know. You’re a big law partner, not Dr. Seuss. I get it. Try being Dr. Seuss now and then. Be vulnerable. Vulnerability connects. Stories connect. Stories heal. People want to connect and heal.