Drug abuse is a large economic concern in the United States. Most illegal drug users are employed, but the abuse of substances leads to losses in productivity. It’s not just illegal substances, though. Alcoholism by itself accounts for 500 million lost days of work per year.
Some industries suffer more heavily from these issues than others. Jobs with a lot of stress and pressure to succeed are known to drive workers towards substance abuse as a short-term strategy to help them cope.
Legal Profession and Mental Health Challenges
The addiction problem in the legal profession often begins in law school. Students get heavy workloads and feel a lot of pressure to compete. This causes mental health problems for some, which opens up access to prescription medication.
According to one study, one of every five lawyers has used alcohol or some other drug to excess in their lives. For the overwhelming majority, this problem started after they entered law school.
Law School and Coping with Stress
According to the American Bar Association, 40 percent of law students suffer from depression after just one year of law school. This depression typically persists through the rest of law school and during their careers. A study involving Yale law students found that 70 percent of them experienced stress because of the intensity of their studies.
Part of the issue is that many students believe reaching out for help is a sign of weakness. Presenting a stoic face to adversity is a badge of honor for many. In general, male students are less likely to seek help than female students. Straight students are less likely than LGBTQ students, and students of color and students from lower economic backgrounds receive less help than white students and more affluent students.
Law Profession and Ethical Dilemmas
These mental health issues continue after law school. A study in 2016 found that 6 out of 10 lawyers reported anxiety on the job and half reported depression. ADHD occurred in 1 of every 8 lawyers, while 1 in 9 had suicidal thoughts at some point. With mental health issues this prevalent, it is no surprise to find self-medication in the legal profession, or frequent reliance on addictive medications available through the medical system.
Experts consider the overwhelming stress in the legal profession to be a prime culprit. There is a heavy workload, and young lawyers have the added stress of needing to develop a clientele to prove themselves. However, stress is not the only factor driving these problems.
Many lawyers will face decisions between success in their field and their own ethical principles. This conflict can drive them towards mental health issues. Often, lawyers are bound to argue a case and defend positions with which they disagree, further complicating matters.
A Culture of Alcohol
When so many in the legal profession turn to alcohol to relieve stress and anxiety, a culture of alcohol develops. In 2016, the American Bar Association surveyed nearly 13,000 legal professionals and found that 28 percent suffered from depression and 19 percent from anxiety. The same study found that about a third of practicing lawyers had a drinking problem, as defined by the consumption of alcohol in a harmful way, or in a way that could be dependent.
The problem does not distribute evenly throughout the profession, however. Junior associates were the most likely to abuse alcohol. Senior associates were next, and then came junior partners. With many of these problems beginning in law school, the culture of drinking starts early and persists. Drinking becomes not just a coping mechanism, but a form of relating to your colleagues.
Stimulants: Law School “Study Drugs”
Alcohol is not the only drug causing problems for legal professionals. While students use alcohol to cope with a smothering workload, other drugs can help them actually perform the work. Stimulants are prevalent in the legal profession, most of them acquired through the black market.
Overworked attorneys often find themselves short on sleep, which only exacerbates their difficulties in getting their work completed. Some see stimulants or “study drugs” as a way to solve the problem. Adderall, Concerta, and Vyvanse or their generic equivalents are easily attainable on the black market. Cocaine is another stimulant that is widely available for those that seek it.
Once again, the problem often traces back to the student years. The Journal of American College Health estimated that 34 percent of students at a southeastern research university took ADHD medication illegally to combat fatigue, promote mental acuity, and enhance memory. Many of the students were not sure how the drugs worked and considered their use not as bad as other illegal drugs.
Lawyers face a heavy work load and a pressure to succeed that can drive some of them to seek relief through drugs such as alcohol. Others rely on stimulants to keep them alert and active in order to complete work.
Education and Legal Community Provide Resources
Drug-related issues in the legal profession are finally getting some of the attention they deserve. The American Bar Association, for example, has urged bar authorities to provide their members with education and referral programs.
There is also growing recognition of the legal support staff of an organization, often they go unnoticed in discussions about substance abuse in the legal profession and their need for help with drug dependency. Unfortunately, support staff may not enjoy the full range of benefits available to a firm’s attorneys.
The old values of workaholics are giving way to the realization that people need a work/life balance. As attitudes change, the conditions that drive some to substance abuse need to alter as well. In the meantime, for those who have developed a drug or alcohol habit, treatment and a commitment to living a clean and sober life will always prove to be the best option.