I suppose when you’ve been in the eating disorders arena for more than a decade as I have, it should not be surprising when those involved in the general mental health conversation fail to mention such insidious and life-threatening diseases as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. After all, even though eating disorders have been part of the medical lexicon since at least 1680 and briefly received international attention in 1983 when they claimed the life of music icon Karen Carpenter, they are still routinely treated as the red-headed stepchild of all mental illnesses. In fact, when it comes to federal funding for research, eating disorders receive a fraction of the funds ($34 million in 2018) as their more readily recognizable siblings—namely depression ($468 million), alcoholism ($528 million), anxiety disorders ($202 million), drug abuse ($1.33 billion), and schizophrenia($258 million). What’s more, eating disorders had never even been mentioned by name in a piece of federal legislation until 2016 with the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act into law.
And yet it is surprising, especially when you consider that an estimated 30 million Americans (the approximate population of my home State of Texas!) suffer from some form of an eating disorder. Also, at least every 62 minutes someone dies as a direct result of suffering from an eating disorder and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
As disturbing as these statistics are, the likelihood is that they are grossly understated, given that some sources estimate as few as 1 in 10 eating disorder sufferers ever seek treatment and many who meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder don’t even realize it or harbor too much shame due to the social stigma attached to them to acknowledge their affliction, let alone seek help.
And this certainly is true of lawyers.
In a recent study of law student mental health, 27% of students who responded (34% of females and 18% of males) screened positive for some form of eating disorder, while only 3% had actually been diagnosed.
Similar data for practicing attorneys is sparse, if not non-existent. Indeed, some of the largest studies to date on mental health in the legal profession, including a comprehensive 2016 collaborative study conducted by the Ford Foundation and the ABA reported extensively on the disproportionately high percentage of attorneys suffering from depression, alcohol and other substance abuse, and anxiety, but failed to include separate data relating to the prevalence of eating disorders.
However, the absence of data relating to the prevalence of eating disorders among practicing attorneys does not mean that a considerable number of our colleagues aren’t suffering, nor does it justify our continuing to leave these life-consuming and often deadly diseases out of the discussion when it comes to charting the future course of Bar-related mental health initiatives like Lawyers’ Assistance Programs. To the contrary, given what we are learning about the high rate of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and loneliness within our ranks and what we already know about the documented correlation between those conditions and eating disorders, chances are the latter’s prevalence in the legal community is at least as great, if not greater than that found in the general population. If that is the case (and I strongly believe it is), eating disorders certainly deserve and have “earned” a seat at the table in what are the long overdue, but no less welcomed discussions relating to mental health taking place at in national, state, and local bar association meetings and law school and law firm conference rooms across the country. The time has come. The time is now.
**For those searching for help with an eating disorder or simply wanting to learn more about these diseases, here are some helpful resources: The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, and National Eating Disorders Association.
Don Blackwell is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and has been an AV-rated trial lawyer for the past 35 years. He currently is Of Counsel at Bowman and Brooke, LLP in Dallas and is a Fellow in the Litigation Counsel of America. His practice areas include the defense of product liability, construction defect, and toxic tort cases. He also defends class action cases in state and federal court. Don also is the author of Dear Ashley: A Father’s Reflections and Letters to His Daughter on Life, Love, and Hope.