At the Faculty Lounge, Charlotte lawprof Brian Clarke “came out.” No, not about sexuality, but something still hidden in deeper, darker places where society has yet to begin to accept.
I will admit to being a bit nervous about even raising this topic. (Given the nature of many anonymous internet commenters, I think most people would be hesitant to bare even a minute portion of their souls online and attempt to engage with a very serious subject, only to be subject to snarky or mean-spirited attacks.) Plus, mental illness and suicide are not comfortable subjects for most people. There remains a very real stigma attached to mental illness. Many people believe that suffering from clinical depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or a host of other mental illnesses is a character flaw or a weakness. Having one of these diseases has been seen as something of which the sufferer should be ashamed. This attitude has been in place for too long for people to easily change their perceptions and opinions.
However, as lawyers and law professors, we must to do more. It is clear that our students need us to do more. When you are depressed, you feel so terribly alone. You feel different. You feel ashamed. You feel weak. You feel like you will never feel better and that you can never be the person you want to be.
My name is Brian Clarke. I am a father, a husband, a lawyer and a law professor. And I suffer from major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
His post begins by noting a rash of lawyer suicides, accomplished lawyers who, by any metric, should be more than capable of handling the occasional hard knock. While I have some doubts about “diagnosing” these lawyers solely upon their having committed suicide, it serves as a good lead-in to his point.
While there may be some greater enlightenment in some circles with regard to mental illness, the stigma remains very real. Worse still, those who suffer from mental illness may not be capable of recognizing it in themselves, thus making it far harder to realize that treatment is needed. Yet, as Clarke makes clear by offering himself up, it exists, it affects some very smart people who by all outside appearances should be doing great, and it needs to be addressed.
It begins by accepting the notion that mental illness, a terrible name by the way, is a physiological condition. As Clarke notes:
These are treatable diseases, not character flaws.
It makes no more sense to stigmatize someone suffering from bipolar disorder than cancer. It similarly makes no more sense to demand they “tough it out” than it does to demand that a blind person see. It doesn’t happen that way, no matter how ignorant society may be about the nature of the problem.
No, mentally ill people don’t spend their lives rolled up in a ball in a corner drooling, as too many people still believe. At the same time, they can’t force themselves not to be mentally ill, whether on command or as needed. Clarke’s “coming out,” which brought out others who also make it through their day with the help of psychotropic medication, was not merely bold on his part, but critical for many who have hidden their issues for fear of condemnation.
This is not, to be clear, a problem of delicate teacups whose feelings are hurt by any offense to their sensibilities, or special snowflakes who think the world revolves around them. This is about people who suffer from a real, honest-to-god illness, and both need and deserve treatment. While the former deserves little sympathy, the latter deserves to be treated, and treated with dignity.
In a Gawker post, Zachary McDermott, a Brooklyn public defender, wrote of a psychotic episode that landed him involuntarily in Bellevue’s psych ward. After three months and a drug regimen that came and went, he returned to work at the Legal Aid Society.
My caseload had dropped from 70 to zero. Reactions to my return ranged from, “Where have you been?” to “Welcome back.” A few people hugged me and cried. As public defenders we fight for clients who are mentally unfit to stand trial on a near-daily basis. We meet our clients for the first time in jail. I knew if there was a group of people that wouldn’t judge someone for a DSM-V code, it was my colleagues.
But, real or imagined, I felt a widened berth in the hallway and could only see their shattered perception of who I was in their eyes. The hotshot with the mohawk was actually the deeply troubled sad sack with “issues.” Soon enough, I was back in court, and my projections begin to melt, but I was armed with a completely different understanding of my mentally ill clients than I ever hoped to have. Every time I was forced to send someone to Bellevue I battled a wave of nausea. I wished I could tell them, “You aren’t crazy. Crazy people don’t know they’re crazy.”
The fellow who sent me the link to McDermott’s story did so with a question attached. “Is there” he asked, “an ethical responsibility to tell his clients that he’s mentally ill?” It’s a very difficult, very troubling, question. Anything that might impair a lawyer’s ability to provide zealous representation should be disclosed to the client. And certainly, given the myriad discretionary decisions a lawyer must make, the sound advice to which a client is entitled, the lawyer’s ability to exercise sound discretion is critical to the performance of his duty. If that ability is affected by mental illness, then mental illness is relevant and must be disclosed.
More to the point, if a lawyer suffers from mental illness, is he capable at all times of recognizing how it might affect his judgment on behalf of a client? And yet, if so, then no defendant in his right mind would want to be advised and represented by a mentally ill lawyer. No matter how sympathetic the client may be, there is no reason why the client should be willing to risk his life because of the lawyer’s “issue.”
And so we return to the stigma, the influences that push a lawyer to deny his illness, to refuse to seek treatment and try to “tough it out,” thus putting clients at greater risk of the exercise of discretion by a lawyer who suffers from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.
I had no good answer to the question. While it’s easy to pick a side, and it’s easy to react that whatever serves the client is the side we are obliged to choose, it’s not clear which side that is.