Diverse Leaders in Law: Amplifying the Mental Health Conversation
A panel of attorneys and a counseling professional discuss coping strategies and explain the importance of talking about mental health in the high-pressure legal field.
After graduating from law school in 2009, Lindsay Karas Stencel had a good job, and “on paper,” her life was perfect. Behind the scenes, however, her mental health was falling apart, so much so she almost took her own life. As she laid on the floor crying into the carpet, she looked at her two dogs and imagined them saying, “Mom, you’re worth fighting for.” Today, she allows herself to be vulnerable by sharing her story in the chance it might help both colleagues and her law students at Ohio State University.
“I tell them my story, I tell them that it is hard,” says the Thompson Hine partner who serves as co-chair of its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Initiative. “But I also know that there is hope and that there is something that we can look forward to on the other side. And how do we be the person that’s not only supportive of them but helps to point them in a direction that says, ‘Hey, I know maybe your family stigmatizes seeking help, but this is about you, and your family would much rather have you here than not have you here had you not sought help.’”
Karas Stencel shared her story this summer during Columbus CEO magazine’s most recent quarterly Diverse Leaders in Law forum, “Amplifying the Mental Health Conversation.” She was joined by local attorneys and a counseling professional who gathered to talk about intensifying the focus on mental health issues.
The conversation was timely. Like so many other things that have accelerated over the past two-and-a-half years because of COVID-19, the conversation around mental health has been amplified as people struggle with circumstances that are unprecedented in their lifetime. That includes the shift to remote work, a never-seen-before health crisis and social unrest related to the killing of unarmed Black men like George Floyd.
Coping With the Pressure
For attorneys, the mental health conversation predates the pandemic. As the American Bar Association reports, the findings of two studies in 2016 revealed high rates of substance use and mental health disorders among law students and lawyers, putting the issue of well-being front and center in the practice of law. The legal profession is a demanding one. Attorneys endure long hours grappling with complex cases. They have to meet the high expectations of their employers and clients. And, if they are in a firm, they have the ever-present pressure of the billable hour. They often work nights, weekends and holidays while trying to balance personal and family life amid these pressures.
Fortunately, there’s been societal progress in destigmatizing mental health challenges. A 2019 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 87 percent of Americans felt having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.
Meanwhile, over the summer, the Supreme Court of Ohio was considering changes to the rules governing the process of assessing the character and fitness of candidates for admission to the practice of law, Court News Ohio reports. That included eliminating this factor: “Evidence of mental or psychological disorder that in any way affects or, if untreated, could affect the applicant’s ability to practice law in a competent and professional manner.”
The proposed change reflects reports that law school students across the nation are not seeking mental health assistance due to concerns regarding the ramification of disclosure during the character and fitness process.
Joining Karas Stencel at the Diverse Leaders in Law VIII forum were:
• Chante Meadows, MSW, LISW-S, the founder of Meadows Counseling Group
• Shalini Goyal, an associate at Jones Day and treasurer of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Central Ohio
• Frank Carson, a partner at Frost Brown Todd
The discussion was moderated by Jocelyn Armstrong, director of inclusion and outreach at the Ohio State Bar Association. She began the conversation by pointing out that people who feel marginalized in society—whether as a woman, person of color or someone who has a disability—experience additional layers of mental health stressors. Helpful resources include the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Advice From Local Attorneys
The following are excerpts from the conversation, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Meadows says it’s important for law professionals to find allies at work they can talk with about their mental health challenges. That’s because if a person feels isolated or alone, it can lead to further trauma, burnout and, in the worst-case scenario, suicide.
“If I feel like no one cares, no one is listening, then I can’t show up to work as my full self,” Meadows says. She says a person who doesn’t have at least one ally in the office may have to set stiff workplace boundaries because they’ll need to seek mental health support elsewhere.
For Goyal, affinity bars such as the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Central Ohio can serve as support systems for people with shared identities. Members of APABA-CO have hosted advocacy events, promoted pro-Asian/Pacific Islander legislation and held re-enactments of trials that have impacted their community. That included a recent re-enactment of the trial of the two men who murdered Chinese native Vincent Chin in Detroit 40 years ago. The men were sentenced to only three years’ probation and a $3,000 fine plus costs, but with no jail time.
“It was a way to identify with those emotions and feelings and share that with the broader community,” Goyal says. “[Affinity bars] fill a place and [allow] for an emotional response that is welcomed among people with shared ideas and shared identities who can really relate.”
Law firms, too, have been good pillars of support and a provider of resources as attorneys have adjusted to a new way of life during the pandemic, Carson says. In summer 2021, for example, Frost Brown Todd started a series of webinars called “Mental Health Matters” to address topics such as stress and burnout. The firm also has hosted mental health workshops, offers on-site grief counseling and funnels mental health tips onto Outlook calendars. There also are plans to give attorneys and staff access to a mental health app. Aside from such tools, he says personal connections go a long way in helping others with their mental well-being.
“It’s the acknowledgement that it’s OK to check in on your colleagues, and it’s not only OK but it’s something that we should be doing,” he says. “You never really know what someone’s going through … but if we all check up on each other, that will go a long way.”
Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.
This story is from the Fall 2022 issue of Columbus CEO.