How to Manage Mental Health for Immigration Lawyers

In this article, we’re exploring the importance of paying attention to mental health for immigration lawyers and sharing some suggestions for how to address it.
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May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has actually been observing May as such since 1949, and this year’s NAMI Mental Health Awareness Month slogan is “More Than Enough.”

The mental demands of legal work can take a toll on any lawyer’s well-being, but for immigration lawyers, it can be particularly challenging. Furthermore, because immigration lawyers, statistically, may not get paid as much as attorneys in other specialties, worrying about finances adds to the stress.

In this article, we’re exploring the importance of paying attention to mental health for immigration lawyers and sharing some suggestions for how to address it.

The general state of mental health in the legal profession

In 2016 the ABA ran a study and found that 28% of the lawyers that responded to the survey experienced depression, 19% experienced anxiety, and 23% experienced stress. “The ABA study also found that 20.6% of the lawyers reported problematic alcohol use.” 

Two other 2016 studies show high rates of substance abuse and mental health disorders among law students, showing that lawyers’ mental health becomes compromised from the time they start training for the profession: “25 percent of law students are at risk for alcoholism, 17 percent of law students suffer from depression, 37 percent of law students report mild to severe anxiety, 6 percent of law students report having suicidal thoughts in the last year.” 

Law students will not ask for help when they are struggling out of fear of not being admitted to the bar or becoming less eligible for jobs later on. Among practicing lawyers, the results aren’t much better: “28 percent of lawyers suffered from depression, 19 percent of lawyers had severe anxiety, 11.4 percent of lawyers had suicidal thoughts in the previous year”.

In 2022, the ABA found that alcohol use disorders and mental health problems continue to be present in the legal profession at higher rates than in other disciplines and the general population.

And when we focus on the immigration industry, because many immigration lawyers have strong connections to immigrant communities or are immigrants themselves, the general challenges of law practice are compounded with a greater sense of empathy with and sometimes personal responsibility for their clients. Some of the effects of this emotional toll immigration lawyers take can include what’s called “secondary trauma” as well as burnout

What is secondary trauma, and what does it look like? 

Secondary trauma, also known as “secondary traumatic stress” or “compassion fatigue,” occurs when an individual is exposed to others who have experienced trauma and, through that exposure, themselves start to experience symptoms of that trauma. This is not uncommon in immigration law, especially for attorneys who work on humanitarian cases such as asylum, removal proceedings, family separation, VAWA, U visas and more. 

The Department of Health and Human Services outlines symptoms in four categories — behavioral, cognitive, physical, and emotional — as well as solutions that include steps individuals can take on their own or in the context of colleagues and team members. Some of these solutions are mentioned below in this article. 

What is burnout, and how does it affect lawyers?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, you may be experiencing burnout if you feel so overwhelmed that making simple decisions at work or in your personal life feels overwhelming. Burnout also involves feeling exhausted and sluggish and experiencing such high levels of stress that you become easily angry or frustrated, leading to that paralysis where functioning at a basic level may be incredibly difficult.

One of the things that medical professionals like the Cleveland Clinic warn of when it comes to burnout is that many people don’t realize they are in a state of burnout until it’s too late, and they are crashing. It’s imperative to keep the signs of burnout in mind and check in with yourself, especially during hectic times at work. The Mayo Clinic provides a great questionnaire anyone can use to check on their level of burnout.

Five ways to manage your mental health as a lawyer

There are measures you can take to ensure your mental health is supported as you navigate challenges in your clients’ cases and in maintaining your business. Here are some helpful tips.

Take care of your physical health. 

Keeping your body healthy through exercise and nutrition is a great way to help manage mental health via physical health. Whether you’re prepping meals ahead of time or using a meal subscription service to ensure that you have a healthy diet, scheduling in time to exercise as part of your day, even if you’re just taking a walk, playing outside with your kids or walking up and down the stairs rather than taking the elevator. Finally, making sure you get ample sleep, and hydration, are key to a healthy daily routine.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, exercise “improves brain and cognitive function, reduces anxiety and depression, improves sleep, and improves the overall quality of life.” 

Build a support system, both professionally and personally. 

The support system of a lawyer may include their professional network, friends and family, and mentors. Reach out to your professional network not only for case-related topics but also to discuss how to handle the emotional toll of the work - whether the cases you’re working on, teammates, government policies and more.

The University of Michigan School of Medicine states that having positive, fulfilling personal relationships across different social circles improves your self-esteem, helps build a sense of belonging, and helps reduce stress. Knowing that you have people in your life who have your back can improve your well-being, and by being part of other people’s support systems, you can help improve theirs too.

Make time for hobbies and interests outside of work.

Hobbies that allow you to nurture other parts of your life and engage in activities that bring you joy outside of work can help bring a level of balance to your life that is positive for your wellbeing. What matters the most is that your chosen hobby is enjoyable and means something to you: pursuits can be creative, athletic, academic, entertaining, or anything in between. Regardless of the activity, people who engage in hobbies have reported improvements in their well-being, including reduced cortisol (stress hormone) levels, a decrease in anxiety and depression, and feeling a greater sense of connection with others.

If you struggle to make time for your hobbies, include it in your schedule the same way you would other appointments. For example, Saturday morning between 7 and 8 am is quiet knitting time, reading time, or action-figure painting time, or whatever other hobby you’d like to dedicate more time to.

Set boundaries around work and maintain them. 

Boundaries are “defined rules or limits that someone establishes to protect their security and wellbeing around others.” If you are a solo practitioner and struggle to respect the boundaries you’ve set for work consistently, enlist someone in your support system to be your accountability partner and check in with you.

Boundaries vary depending on the different environments you’re in. For example, at work, boundaries may involve being clear and direct with your clients and staff members about what you need and how you work, sticking to a schedule, and understanding that, while it is possible to work all the time, it’s not necessarily healthy to do so. Another way to set boundaries at work may be deciding on a specific case type or types for your practice and not accept any others.

Talk to a mental health professional

While all the aforementioned methods of managing mental health are important, speaking to a therapist, psychologist, coach or other mental health professional is always a good idea.

Admittedly, there’s still a significant stigma around seeking assistance in managing mental health issues. But sometimes knowing what to look for in a mental health professional can help you get comfortable with finding and working with one. If you’re unsure when to seek professional help, consider whether you feel like you can’t think clearly and whether getting an unbiased perspective would help you sort through your feelings, whether you feel not in control of your emotions or feelings, and as a result, struggling with making simple decisions, or if you’re turning to substance use in order to deal with mental health challenges.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer regarding mental health, especially for attorneys. The work is hard, the hours are long, the pay can be less-than-ideal and the stakes are often quite high. These factors, in addition to everything else life throws at us, can add up to mental health challenges. Hopefully this article served as a reminder about the importance of taking care of ourselves and each other, and a few ideas about how to do that.

Docketwise: a streamlined platform to prevent case management overwhelm 

A simplified,streamlined immigration law practice can bring a sense of calm amid the ongoing demands of immigration law casework, and having the right tools to ensure this can help. Docketwise’s cloud-based immigration case management and client relationship management (CRM) platform provides a smooth, one-stop solution for all your case management needs.

With our easy-to-use client questionnaires, industry-leading API integrations, 24/7 customer support and other cutting-edge features, Docketwise lets you stay on top of all your cases, easily communicate with your clients, and otherwise build and manage your law firm in a way that makes you happy, helps you reach your goals, and ultimately makes this practice enjoyable and sustainable.

To learn more about Docketwise, schedule a demo on our website and subscribe to our Immigration Briefings newsletter to continue learning about Docketwise and all things immigration and technology.

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