Helping Judges in Distress

By Zimmerman, Isaiah M. | Judicature, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

Helping Judges in Distress


Zimmerman, Isaiah M., Judicature


Judges are subject to a wide range of physical and emotional problems and stresses but often don't get the help they need. A "wellness initiative" in the courts could help overcome the unique barriers they face in obtaining assistance.

Judges come from the ranks of lawyers, and lawyers, as a group, are reliably estimated to include a steady minority of 15 to 18 percent' who suffer from problems with substance abuse and related disorders. Programs designed to help lawyers in distress have been established throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. These programs have a fine record of outreach and help, and are now an accepted part of intra-professional responsibility. However, the sections of these programs that are also meant to help judges have not attracted the level of requests for service that would be reasonable to expect. What are the reasons for the low use of these widely available services, and what can be done about it?

My own experience as a clinical psychologist, in a metropolitan area adjacent to four states, who has seen a significant number of judges over the past 30 years confirms that judges do indeed seek help with a whole variety of personal and family problems. But they do so outside the available bar programs. When asked why, they cite the need for strict privacy and confidentiality. They are willing to pay a premium in fees, and to not utilize their health insurance coverage. Can there be a broader and less expensive way for judges to get help when they need it?

Range of problems

Let us review the situations in which most judges privately seek help.

Health and medical. Medical and surgical care often involves dealing with the disruption of family routines and responsibilities. The illness of children, spouses, and aging parents can entail arranging for home care, clinic visits, physical therapy appointments, and other collateral arrangements. Whether under a direct or master calendar, most judges have to work out backup for an already overloaded docket. Welfare clients sometimes have the help of medical social workers-judges do not. Between the presiding judge, calendar clerk, and court administrator, something is usually arranged. But the emotional toll on the judge and family is rarely addressed." Most judges live in dread of these situations, because, ultimately, the caseload balloons and must be handled by extended hours on the bench and work at home. A chronic, long-term illness in the family places the judge in an indefinitely prolonged caregiver role, For all of the foregoing, the services of a health counselor or social worker would be most appropriate.

Mental health. Judges are subject to a normal spectrum of psychological issues, including depression, anxiety, and mid-life crises. These can underlie a reduction in productivity, tardiness in opinion writing, clashes within the judicial administration and hierarchy, and intemperate and inappropriate behavior on or off the bench. Psychiatric treatment still carries stigma in our society. Despite a more widespread acceptance of mental health diagnosis and treatment, psychiatric care is still not reimbursed on a par with medical and surgical care. CEOs, high officials, political leaders, and judges shun the suggestion of possible mental illness, diminished capacity of judgment, and the charge of malingering to evade misconduct charges. As a result, judges either put off seeking treatment until symptoms can no longer be denied, or obtain medication from their general practitioner. When they do seek psychological care, they employ safeguards such as seeing a practitioner out of their area, requesting telephone sessions, and asking the psychiatrist to schedule them away from the session of any local lawyer or newsperson.

All this freights their psychotherapy with unfortunate burdens, and some quit counseling before they should. Group psychotherapy, a very effective modality of care, is virtually closed to them, as well as to other public figures, since confidentiality cannot be assured, and membership in a group cannot be totally selective. …

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