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Spring/Summer 2021, Topic of the Quarter

Lawsuits and Mental Health by Jonathan Watson

Our last blog posting addressed workplace bullying and hostile work environments. This entry will take a broader approach in tying mental health to law. It is said that a divorce is one of the most stressful life events for a person. What about other types of litigation that fall under, say, civil or criminal law?

Please be aware that this posting is not a substitute for mental health advice or support. Nor is this posting intended to discourage an individual from pursuing justice. Rather, it is intended to highlight how one’s health (especially mental) can be affected due to legal proceedings. As summarized by Strasburger in “The Litigant-Patient: Mental Health Consequences of Civil Litigation” (1999),

“…civil litigation is stressful for plaintiffs and for defendants. There is an inherent irony in the judicial system in that individuals who bring suit may endure injury from the very process through which they seek redress. The legal process itself is often a trauma. Although many hope-and some find-that it is ultimately restorative, no one brings a lawsuit for his or her health…”

It might be thought that the end of a case will prove cathartic. We always see the courtroom erupting in jubilation when the judge rules in favor of the protagonist in films and television. However, Strasburger goes on to state that the feelings of stress for both parties reverberate even after the case’s conclusion. More so, the nature of the case can especially have adverse effects—as a personal injury lawsuit was cited as further affecting the overall health of an ailing party. After all, will the judgment make the ongoing pain and mounting medical costs suddenly vanish?

In the 2017 article “Anticipating and Managing the Psychological Cost of Civil Litigation”, Keet, Heavin and Sparrow discuss the impact of litigation stress and how it can be amplified based on the perceived level of stakes. More so, the stress can prove detrimental for individuals with ongoing mental or emotional vulnerabilities. The authors describe how an individual suffering from PTSD after witnessing a violent event might be further triggered by repeated interviews about the incident. As the litigation stress mounts, the authors describe scenarios in which the litigant might exhaust their support system, or the attorney-client meetings start growing increasingly difficult.  

If represented by an attorney, it might seem like the litigant is experiencing the bulk of the stress—as they are relying on an expert to guide them through the legal process. Yet, as with other professions, attorneys are only human and cope with litigation stress in their own ways. According to a study conducted by Krill, Johnson, and Albert (2016), American attorneys experience their fair share of substance abuse and mental health concerns. Their sample revealed that the surveyed attorneys experienced high degrees of depression and anxiety, and significant rates of alcoholism.

In 2021, the Los Angeles Times reported on a 2020 study that included the participation of the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar. The study entitled “Stress, Drink, Leave: An Examination of Gender-Specific Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems and Attrition Among Licensed Attorneys” included similar findings to the one conducted by Krill, Johnson, and Albert. The 2020 study reaffirmed that female attorneys experienced more mental stress (compounded by work-life balance challenges) than their male counterparts. As a result, the 2020 study showed that 1 in 4 female attorneys contemplated leaving the profession. The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession has produced valuable literature on female attorneys, such as conducting its own study on how women of color fare in the legal field.

While they are neither litigants nor attorneys, law library staff can also experience their fair share of stress as outlined in AALL’s 2018 resource “Legal Ease: Self-Care for Library Staff”. Although it is expected that customers will be distressed, it can be a trying task for employees if there is a demand for legal advice or assistance that goes beyond the scope of a law library’s reference services. As quoted, “The very nature of library work predisposes us to burnout. A normal library workday can be described as a continuous round of interruptions”. Some of the stressors mentioned include unmet needs for pro per litigants that cannot afford an attorney, limited resources and staff, and the increasing costs of legal materials. Other factors addressed in the resource include lack of established boundaries between employees, coworkers, and management. Moreover, although the resource does not mention it, there could be the argument that a toxic work environment and workplace bullying could further contribute to a library worker’s stress and burnout.

For information on mental health services in Solano County, you might start your research by viewing this brochure produced by Solano County Behavioral Health. As a reminder, be sure to check out Solano County Library’s mental health kits. You might also consider checking out the social justice book kits, as they address topics such as Native American rights, disability rights, and immigration. If you are unable to check out the kits, you can explore similar materials by using Solano County Library’s databases.

Whether you are a pro per litigant or a legal expert, be sure to visit Solano County Law Library for your legal reference needs!  This blog posting is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for legal advice. Please consult with a legal expert for the best guidance.

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