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Mental Fitness: Sharing my diagnosis gives other attorneys courage to do same

June 28, 2017

mental-fitness-murtaugh.jpgThis is the second Mental Fitness article. In the first article, I shared my bipolar II diagnosis, and I am very thankful that I did. Thank you to everyone who reached out to me. The responses were all warm and inviting.

People who I have never met shared their personal experiences with bipolar I/II with me. A few examples include an associate in a big law firm, a partner in a small law firm, and a solo practitioner in Pennsylvania

Knowing that the article made an impact was very rewarding. People were emailing and calling, and it was fun to receive praise and positive attention. I hope the connections continue.

At the same time, the fact that publicly sharing a mental health diagnosis is still considered to be such a big deal is unfortunate. I hope people in our profession will realize that the idea that you must hide a mental health diagnosis to have a successful law career is absurd.

How would you feel if an attorney in your law firm decided to publicly share a mental illness diagnosis?

My JLAP story – Part 2

In the first column, I wrote about contacting the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program and asking for help. I shared that experience because it is so difficult to take that step. I did not share the full story and that is probably because it is hard for me to admit to my imperfections.

I was in a bad place in 2015. I was having depressive episodes, where I could barely get through the day, that lasted seven to 10 days. I was irritated easily. I had frequent suicidal ideations (never seriously considered suicide). At one point, I decided that I did not want to practice law and even told some people that. I was also being very aggressive and uncharacteristically lashing out at people. I think I was feeling so much emotional pain that in my mind I justified my hurtful behavior.

Shortly after I sent the email to JLAP in May 2015, I met with a JLAP clinical case manager. We discussed my situation and the services that JLAP offers. I decided to meet with a JLAP mentor. My JLAP mentor and I played a round of golf. At that time, I was just beginning to think about sharing my diagnosis publicly. With a couple holes left to play, I brought up the subject. We talked about it for a few minutes and then finished up the round. It was a very enjoyable time.

I think it motivated me to take the next step, attending a support group. I drove to Indianapolis and attended the JLAP Mental Health Support Group meeting. I felt anxious on the drive down and even considered skipping it after I arrived in Indianapolis. When I got to the meeting, I was nervous and felt hesitant to talk to the group. I listened to other attorneys share their stories and I did talk when it was my turn. After I spoke, I felt much lighter.

After the meeting, one of the attorney participants gave me his card and told me to call him if I ever needed to talk. I called him a few weeks later, and he recommended for me to see his psychiatrist. After I started treating with her is when I finally got some relief. She changed the dosage of my medicine and has monitored my medicine since.

The medicine and the additional support greatly helped. However, I struggled to make time to drive to Indianapolis for the support group meetings. Also, I was still working at my former law firm and I was afraid of being seen at a support group in Lafayette. Eventually, I stopped going to the support group meetings in Indianapolis, and I stopped meeting with the JLAP mentor.

About a year later, when I first shared my diagnosis publicly on Facebook, I finally went to a support group in Lafayette at the local Mental Health America building. I think going to the support groups in Lafayette is one of best ways that I can help fight the stigma, so my goal is to start attending more frequently.

JLAP does fill a need that is not covered with counseling alone. There is a void that can be filled by attorneys helping each other out and connecting outside of work.

Mental fitness exercise: paper toss

When practicing law, it is good practice to keep records of our work product. We make notes to the file when we talk to clients and adverse counsel. We capture our time in detailed billing entries. We write letters and emails to make a permanent record to protect ourselves. It is important, but it can be a pain.

The paper toss exercise allows you to take a break from your attorney routine. You will need a pen, paper and a quiet space (e.g., coffee shop). Take some time to think (three to five minutes) and write down whatever you want (for five to 10 minutes).

This is your opportunity to be creative and let loose a little bit. The idea is to clear out some of the clutter in your mind. It helps me let go of internal and external frustrations. Also, I find this exercise helps me to be more honest with myself and admit fault. Then, throw the paper away.

Here are some ideas to write about:

• What is your greatest frustration in your current law practice?

• What would you like to say to someone but cannot (judge, client, co-worker)?

• Is there anything that you have done recently that you wish you could take back?

• What do you enjoy about practicing law?

• Make a list of original ideas (invention, book, business venture).

• What would your ideal law practice look like?

You can write as little or as much as you want. Remember, lawyers often think about taking care of others before themselves. I encourage you to take some time for yourself. Hopefully, you will give it a try and develop your own mental fitness routine.•

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• Reid D. Murtaugh is attorney in Lafayette and the founder of Murtaugh Law. You can email him at reidmentalfitness@gmail.com. Also, you can learn more about Reid’s practice at www.murtlaw.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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