By Eric Wood
Much has been said of late of the vulnerability of legal professionals to disorders of the mind. Depression, anxiety and substance use disorders run rampant throughout the profession in numbers far greater than the general population. This was demonstrated in the landmark study by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which was featured in the article, “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” by Patrick Krill, Ryan Johnson and Linda Albert.
Sadly, despite the evident need, attorneys seem less inclined than others to ask for help. This inclination for suffering in silence may be traceable to the intense training of law school. Law students are groomed to be competitive and strive for perfection. Any vulnerability may be perceived as weakness. A law student of my acquaintance recently said to me she worries her classmates will find out she is in counseling and use that information to their competitive advantage against her.
Perhaps the resistance to seeking help predates law school and speaks more to the personality makeup of a person who would seek a career in the legal profession. Attorneys tend to be intense, self-critical and sensitive to criticism by others. These personality traits may contribute to a degree of professional success but may also take a toll on one’s psyche. At any rate, lawyers tend to be quite adept at maintaining a persona and level of performance belying any internal struggle. When signs of a psychological malady finally surface, the individual may be further along in their struggle than anyone may realize. It is imperative at this point for change to occur. That change may require an intervention.
Interventions have gained a foothold in our culture due, in part, to the reality television explosion of the last 20 years. Popular shows such as “Intervention,” “Celebrity Rehab” and “Dr. Phil” tend to portray an intervention as a wild and wooly ambush. The unsuspecting recipient typically appears to be backed into a corner with ultimatums. While television shows are designed to entertain with such drama, a real-life intervention may be far less sensational. At the heart of the matter, an intervention is simply a conversation designed to create motivation. That motivation may be cultivated with the intent of a small course correction or a grand and sweeping lifestyle change. For the legal profession, interventions may target a substance-abusing attorney who is on the verge of a disciplinary complaint, or an elderly lawyer dragging his feet on retirement. The degree to which the intervention requires organization and potentially professional facilitation depends on the complexity of the situation.
In their seminal book, “Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention,” Jeff and Debra Jay present a compelling argument for leading with compassion. Particularly when dealing with addiction, the Jays counter the traditional “tough love” approach with a call for “a carefully planned process founded on love and honesty.” In the preface to the Second Edition, the Jays state, “We’ve learned that when we expand the role of love, it is love, rather than toughness, that first breaks through denial.” It is important to note denial is a naturally occurring human defense mechanism employed in the campaign against change. It stands to reason that an effort rooted in the foundation of compassion may fare better against those defenses than any strong-arm strategy. And with attorneys, tough love may not only inspire defensiveness, it may provoke a compelling counter-argument. That is, after all, what attorneys do. They argue.
I completed Love First Clinical Intervention Training with the Jays last May. The five-day intensive training covers every aspect of intervention. Trainees are taught first and foremost on the importance of leading with love. In the addictions field, we have long understood addiction to be a manifestation of a biomedical condition — an illness, not a character defect or moral failing. Addictive disease, like many other afflictions, should be seen as an opportunistic infection that has invaded an unwitting host. Here, we tend to wrestle with the notion of choice. Sure, the alcoholic or addict chose to put the drink or drug inside his or her body; but in my 28 years of practice, I have never met anyone who approached that first encounter with a full-blown addiction as the expected outcome. When you consider 9 out of 10 adults seeking treatment for a substance use disorder initiated their first use before age 21, it makes sense that the potential consequences may not have been fully understood. It may be helpful to think of addictive disease like other chronic diseases, such as cancer or heart disease. When someone is suffering with one of these potentially fatal conditions, our tendency is to respond with compassion instead of blame. Understanding addiction in these terms enables us to engage in the task of intervention with compassion and lead with love.
In their approach, the Jays also have done something else remarkable. They structure their book with the aim of equipping the layperson with the skills needed to conduct an intervention without the use of a professional interventionist. The book presents step-by-step instructions for forming an intervention team, selecting a treatment center and constructing letters to be read to the target individual. The reader is also directed to the website www.lovefirst.net for numerous resources, including instructional videos, reading materials and links to podcasts by the Jays.
Even though an intervention can be executed without a professional, a trained interventionist increases the odds of a better outcome. Your Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program has performed hundreds of interventions, great and small, over its 20-plus years of formal existence. We fully understand that need to express compassion and lead with love, as we may encounter people at the lowest or most stressful time in their lives. We are here to help confidentially and are just a phone call away —317-833-0370.•
• Eric Wood is a licensed clinical addictions counselor and clinical case manager at JLAP. Opinions expressed are those of the author.