Judges in Distress When to Seek Help

Mirelsa Modestti González, Ph D

When a search and rescue operation finds its target in adverse or critical condition, rescuers refer to the person or vessel as being “in distress”.  Likewise, an airline pilot who sends out a “mayday warning” upon realizing there is imminent danger, will refer to the aircraft as “in distress”. Among other definitions, Merriam-Webster defines distress as “pain or suffering affecting the body; a bodily part, or the mind”; “a painful situation”; and “a state of danger or desperate need”. Distress implies an external and usually temporary cause of great physical or mental strain and stress. Suffering distress implies conscious endurance of pain or angst.1 Doctors speak of fetal distress when a fetus cannot adequately respond to the stress of labor.

What is, then, a judge in distress? The medical notion of being unable to adequately respond to stress would be most accurate.  Any condition, problem, or situation that impairs a judge’s ability to carry out his/her judicial functions or poses a challenge to the judge’s physical or emotional stability causes distress.  Dr. Isaiah Zimmerman, author of Helping judges in distress, states that judges are plagued by a wide range of physical and emotional problems or stresses, and often do not get the help they need. He discusses some situations in which judges often seek help in areas like physical and mental health, substance and alcohol abuse and addiction, career and organizational stressors, marital and family difficulties and even aging and retirement issues.2

The judicial career can be full of great satisfactions, but it also entails a great deal of stress. In all judicial decisions, someone is not going to be satisfied. Rarely does a job description involve automatic dissatisfaction (at least on one part) in every single decision that takes place. From the very first day of a new judge’s appointment, his/her every move is publicly scrutinized. His/her world shrinks, as his/her social life becomes very limited.  If the judge is married (and has a good marriage), he/she can take refuge in family life, whereas a single judge can feel great isolation.

Like any other person, judges face marital conflicts, problems with parents or children, financial difficulties, and they suffer from physical ailments and other troubles.  But unlike any other person, judges are expected to conceal their hardship.  They must struggle with their demons in private and maintain the calm, cool, and collected image.  As a judge once told me: “Who wants to have a case in the hands of a nervous wreck?”  This combination of greater stress and a reduced support system poses a great risk of distress. This is why Judicial Assistance Programs are necessary, and are sprouting in almost every jurisdiction.

Lawyers Assistance Programs have been providing help to lawyers, judges and even law students for over twenty years. But all programs report very low rate of judges seeking services. Even Judicial Assistance Programs expressly created to address mental health and substance and alcohol abuse among judges have a very low rate of participation. Why?  Sure, there is a great deal of denial. But when asked, judges express great concern for confidentiality.   Alcohol and substance abuse, family or marital problems and mental health conditions rarely get better without treatment. And the bigger the problem, the greater the potential for distress.

What Are The Signs That There is Something Wrong?

Signs of marital and family problems, depression and other mental health conditions, and alcohol or substance abuse in judges are no different than those of the rest of the population. As Hon. Robert Childers, chair of the ABA’s Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs (CoLAP) once said “judges are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances”.

In couples, frequent arguments (especially over things that both recognize as insignificant), infidelity, old feelings of resentment, and lack of trust are signs of marital difficulties that usually need special attention.  In families, difficult relationships with adolescents, power struggles, and discipline issues may require counseling or family therapy.  At the personal level, lack of energy, sleep or eating problems, depressed mood, irritability, and decreased concentration could be signs of depression and should not be ignored.  Panic attacks, nervousness, intruding thoughts, mood swings, obsessions, and compulsive behaviors are all symptoms of conditions that require professional help.

Domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and substance abuse must be addressed immediately, since no amount of violence or substance abuse is too little. Judges can seek help through a Judicial Assistance Program, if there is one, or through a private mental health professional or service. 

Milder family situations, financial problems, and occupational stress can be handled without professional intervention if there is respect, calm and good communications skills. Stress management seminars offer excellent tools for dealing with everyday stressors, and self help books often help people reframe some situations and improve communication in the marriage or family.  But long term difficulties, mental health conditions like depression, and alcohol or substance abuse or dependency usually require professional help.

Sometimes, judges hang on and difficulties go unnoticed, although this doesn’t mean that there is not a price to pay.  Unfortunately, most cases of judicial impairment show up in periodic evaluations or, even worse, through an unfortunate incident that threatens the judge’s physical or mental stability or permanently harms his/her reputation, and that of the Judiciary.

Occupational Stress and Burnout

As mentioned earlier, the judicial career involves a lot of stress.  Every day, judges must solve cases in which a human being, a family or sometimes an entire community’s future is at stake. Attorneys who litigate before them do not always play by the rules and can sometimes challenge the judge’s temperament. Public opinion, the press, and community organizations frequently try to pressure judges by making public statements and expressing opinions about their decisions, and sometimes even about them, from which they cannot defend themselves.

Particularly, judges who deal with Family and Criminal cases are more prone to vicarious trauma, which is the trauma suffered by health and justice system professionals who must listen to accounts and watch videos or pictures of traumatic situations such as abuse, rape, torture, and murder.  The phantom of the possibility of an unfair decision is another stressor rarely faced or talked about, but frequently felt in the form of anxiety.

As if this were not enough, appeals and the possibility of their decisions being reversed, generate a great deal of stress. The periodic evaluation process is also a very stressful event for judges.  Most jurisdictions conduct thorough investigations during the evaluation process, and there is always the possibility that attorneys who have resented a judge’s decision will take revenge when answering the confidential evaluation forms. Judges who also have administrative duties must deal with the challenges of peer and staff supervision and workplace situations that may arise.

To protect from burnout, judges should take vacation time regularly and participate in stress management seminars and recreational activities programmed especially for them.

Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Many people confuse alcohol abuse (which can have terrible consequences for the abuser as well as family members) with alcoholism.  Alcoholism is a disease characterized by a chemical dependency. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV)establishes the following criteria for Alcohol Dependency (three of the seven following symptoms must be met for over 1 year)

    1. Tolerance (increased drinking to achieve same effect)
    2. Alcohol withdrawal signs or symptoms
    3. Drinking more than intended
    4. Unsuccessful attempts to cut down on use
    5. Excessive time devoted to alcohol related activities (obtaining, consuming, and dealing with hangover)
    6. Impaired social or work activities due to alcohol
    7. Use despite physical or psychological consequences

Although many people who meet these criteria are in denial, and do not seek or accept help, the dependency progresses and becomes painfully obvious to family members, coworkers, and other people.  In the Judiciary, aside from the judge’s denial, there may also be endorsed denial by the judge’s peers, support personnel or even the judicial system. In addition, judges who are well esteemed in a jurisdiction are “protected” by the silence of the legal community, thus retarding the beginning of the recovery process.

Untreated alcoholism may lead to serious illness, car and motorcycle accidents (with the possibility of criminal charges), serious financial problems, severe family conflicts, divorce, and even suicide. According to studies, over fifty percent of all suicides are associated with alcohol and drug dependence and at least 25% of alcoholics and drug addicts commit suicide.5

However, not all alcohol problems are alcoholism.  Some people have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol because of inadequate drinking habits.  Sometimes they drink too much, too fast, or too frequently, and get in trouble. Since alcohol diminishes inhibitions, some people exhibit problematic behavior like aggressiveness, promiscuity, and imprudent or indiscreet expressions under the influence of alcohol.  Even if this cannot be labeled as alcoholism, it is sufficient to warrant attention.

How do you know if you are a problem drinker? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that you honestly answer the following tour questions:

  • Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

One "yes" answer suggests a possible alcohol problem. More than one "yes" answer means it is highly likely that a problem exists.  If a problem does exist, it should be treated.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is similar to alcohol abuse in the compulsive nature of the problem, and the recovery process is similar in some stages. However it is more complicated and poses a greater challenge to judges.  Illegal drugs are obtained by dealing with criminals and engaging in illegal activities, which presents an inherent conflict with the judicial function. Additionally, when the judge consumes illegal substances, he/she is vulnerable to overt or concealed blackmailing.

Another obstacle for recovery is the process itself. Aside from the issue of denial, which prevents judges from seeking help, substance abuse often requires detox in an institution, follow-up treatment and/or recovery groups and routine lab screenings, all of which entail a very high risk of disclosure.

Prescription drug abuse does not have some of the risks associated with illegal substance use, but is also very challenging to deal with. Because judges often have friends in the medical field and pharmaceutical industries, this type of addiction is very difficult to detect. 

Routine consumption of drugs, whether prescribed or illegal, affects judgment, temperament, and concentration, rendering the user impaired to adequately perform judicial functions.

Mental Health Conditions

Depression is probably the most widely discussed mental illness, and perhaps the most ignored. Many people experience depressed mood, loss of energy, lack of motivation, difficulty sleeping (or sleeping too much), feelings of worthlessness and guilt, loss of appetite, irritability, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and thoughts of suicide, but bear them without seeking help, or even acknowledging that something is wrong.

Other mental health conditions like bipolarity, anxiety disorders, and social phobias go unnoticed, or mistaken as personality traits, and are an unnecessary burden for the person who suffers them and their close relatives.

Judges who struggle with depression, mood swings, and panic attacks, just to name a few, feel a great deal of pressure due to the fear of disclosure and, just like with alcohol and substance abuse, this makes obtaining help even more difficult. But some of these conditions are easier to control than addictions. Unfortunately, psychiatric and psychological treatment still carries a stigma. People feel uncomfortable speaking about being in treatment. When it comes to judges, because of the nature of their position, the reluctance to discuss this issue is even greater.

It is the responsibility of the Judiciary, as a system, to provide our judges with stress reduction mechanisms and to help them identify and deal with conditions or situations that may result in impairment of their judicial functions.  If our judges learn to recognize the symptoms and feel secure in seeking professional help, they will lead happier, more productive lives and careers.

1 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Distress, last visited January 5, 2010.

2 I. Zimmerman, Helping Judges in Distress, in Judicature, Vol. 90, number 1, July-August 2006.

3 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV TR) (1994).

4 M. Modestti-González, The Many Faces of Denial, in Highlights, Vol. 12 no. 2, Summer 2009.

5 N. S. Miller, J. C. Mahler, and M. S. Gold, Suicide Risk Associated with Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Journal of Addictive Diseases, Volume 10, Issue 3, July 1991, pages 49 – 61.