Here is the second part of our interview on mental health with WSBA President Rajeev Majumdar. If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 of this interview as well as the episode of Beyond the A on which Majumdar recently appeared.
NWSidebar: You’ve mentioned that you shared your interview with Beyond the A with others. In what situations did you share it and why? Was this with other lawyers? What sort of reaction did you receive?
Rajeev Majumdar: The reaction has been so positive. I have used it in a few interventions with other lawyers; that is one of the reasons I was willing to do this interview. I think I speak openly, candidly, and intimately about some things a lot of lawyers feel but do not express and do not feel they can express. The lawyers I have gone through this with have been on steep precipices that seem to them to be unescapable and leave them feeling alone; and having a dialogue of honesty about the pressures on our profession and self-care can really help our members find productive ways to better serve themselves and the public. We are all human beings and we all have frailties, it is important lawyers recognize this in themselves and that we support each other with this understanding.
NWS: How has your experience as a person of color, and also being a South Asian, how does that intersect? How has that shaped your views [on mental health]?
We are all human beings and we all have frailties, it is important lawyers recognize this in themselves and that we support each other with this understanding.
Majumdar: This is such a third-rail question because there’s actually no way to answer it correctly without offending some person or accidentally stereotyping someone, but let me try my best here. I have a master’s degree in South Asian studies and I’ve testified as an expert witness on South Asian cultural matters, but South Asia is a huge and broad collection of civilizations. And generally in South Asia today, as in most of the world, mental health is something that’s usually hidden away when possible or euphemized … . Seeking treatment by oneself or on behalf of a family member is not the traditional response. That being said, I have a niece in India who is a mental health counselor, and I wouldn’t want to stereotype the country or population. The social and economic development of the world tends to dictate our opportunities. My experiences in the U.S.A are completely different—in many circles having a therapist is normative or even seen as a sign of privilege (cue New Yorker magazine cartoons and Frasier reruns). I have, however, seen in the immigrant community—both as a community member, and as someone who represents South Asians—the population struggles with seeking help. This is interesting because statistically speaking, South Asians are one of the most privileged demographics in America, but culturally the acceptance is not there
And the flat-out answer to that is I don’t feel my experiences are reflected, but it’s not due to being a person of color or a South Asian. My experiences aren’t reflected because we don’t have any broader conversation about mental health. The conversation about mental health in this country goes this far: “We need public funding.” We all understand it’s super important and we need to have public health and mental health available—we don’t really dive into what that means or why that is … .
I think probably everyone might know someone who has a mental-health disorder, but we don’t talk about root causes and solutions in depth. What are the causes of this? What leads to these issues? Why do they affect some people and not other people? What are the root causes in our society we need to tackle? I don’t think there’s any discussion about that altogether. I think as a profession, the WSBA has acknowledged the issue; we’ve committed to providing every single member with free wellness and mental health resources….
WSBA Connects, our member-assistance program, is something all lawyers have access to. And it’s a way to collectively use our resources to do something that’s going to help all lawyers and help the public, because lawyers do not do good work when they are not well and mental health is an incredibly important part of being an effective lawyer….
NWS: What do you think that lawyers, law firms, and even the Bar can do to end—or to at least lessen—the stigma that is surrounding mental illness, and also substance use, [which] has its own different set of stigmas attached to it?
Majumdar: There’s a fear of the unknown in our profession. Our profession is a relatively conservative one. It doesn’t adapt to change easily. And if we look at the unknown, we might not like what we see. We might find something weak. There’s a subconscious fear that you don’t match up, that you don’t meet the expectations set on you and you don’t want to be seen as weak. … But while the WSBA is here to regulate and discipline the profession as an integrated bar, we are also here to support our members so they can have fulfilling professional lives and also avoid getting into situations that require discipline. And that protects the public; lawyers that are functional and not making bad choices are serving the public.
What we have to remember is that the someone sitting across from you, opposing counsel or client, it’s a real human being and that human being is stressed, they’re anxious. … Most people who end up resorting [to] coming to a law office are people who are at the end of their wits, and are in trauma … . The very nature of our job is one that’s dealing with conflict. And I think that can have a long-lasting toll on the quality of a person’s life and mental well-being. If we aren’t cognizant of these stresses and actively addressing them, it can lead to very poor mental health. We need to be talking about it as normative and that seeking help to support oneself through the practice of law is normative. I hope this interview and the Beyond the A interviewis part of an increasingly public dialogue, which is the best thing the WSBA can legitimize and foster, in addition to providing our members with free access to the support and services that our society does not.