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Case highlights statistics regarding some attorneys' substance abuse, mental issues

By Dee Thompson | Nov 10, 2016

MILTON, FLORIDA – Criminal defense attorney Terra Carroll of Lakewood Ranch was arrested on Sept. 10 after she was stopped for an apparent DUI and allegedly found to be in possession of controlled substances. Before her arrest, Carroll hit a police car and led officers from the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Department and the Gulf Breeze police department on a high speed chase, according to law enforcement.

Carroll was incarcerated in the Santa Rosa County Jail. The charges against her were reckless driving, driving under the influence, fleeing law enforcement at high speed, resisting an officer without violence, aggravated fleeing law enforcement with injury or damage, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, aggravated battery on law enforcement and resisting an officer with violence. Bond was $110,000.

On Sept. 16, Santa Rosa County Circuit Court Judge Ross Goodman ordered a mental health evaluation, at the request of the State Attorney’s Office. In October, Goodman ordered Carroll to undergo testing to determine if she was competent to stand trial. On Oct. 14, Carroll’s bond was revoked and she was placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Families after reports from two doctors indicated she was not mentally competent to stand trial.

Substance abuse and mental health issues are becoming increasingly common, according to a new poll. Beginning in 2014, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation studied rates of depression, substance abuse and anxiety among licensed attorneys in America. More than 15,000 attorneys filled out the surveys. The survey results were startling – roughly twice the number of attorneys reported mental health and substance abuse issues. According to the survey, 21 percent of attorneys admitted to being problem drinkers. Among other findings: 11.5 percent reported suicidal thoughts and 19 percent reported anxiety.

According to a January 2014 CNN article – “Why are lawyers killing themselves?” – among all professions, lawyers ranked fourth among the professionals most likely to commit suicide. It also says, “Lawyers are also prone to depression, which the American Psychological Association, among others, identified as the most likely trigger for suicide. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.” Florida is one of eight bar associations that have added a mental health education requirement to its mandatory continuing education.

Michael Cohen is the executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, an organization that helps attorneys deal with substance abuse and other mental health issues. He sees stress as the primary reason lawyers suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues at higher rates than the general population. 

“I think it has to do with stress," he told the Florida Record. "A fair number of lawyers turn to – primarily – alcohol. It’s still the number one drug that we see. A lot of lawyers turn to alcohol as a way of dealing with stress and then for a certain percentage that becomes a problem. If the figures are right, 80 percent use it as a way of dealing with stress.”

The problems with substance abuse can begin in law school, Cohen said. “The other thing that we’re seeing is a higher level of use of stimulants in law school, Adderall or Ritalin. The majority of those students will use in school and not necessarily go on to have a problem, but a fair percentage will find that that’s what they have to rely on to practice, and then that gets to be a problem,” he said.

Florida Lawyers Assistance was set up by the Florida Supreme Court in 1986 to help lawyers with substance abuse and mental health issues. Funding comes from the Florida Bar. “We are the primary agency that the Bar uses if a lawyer gets in trouble because of controlled substances,” Cohen said. “Our primary function is to help lawyers, judges, and law students who are dealing with those issues. We do that through professional evaluation, maybe referral to treatment but primarily as a support system through about 30 weekly groups around the state which are free and confidential, and open to any lawyer, judge, or law student, as a way of providing peer support.”

Florida Lawyers Assistance tries to raise awareness through continuing legal education presentations and presentations to new lawyers. “We’re just trying to get the word out about what the problem is, and the fact that we’re here,” Cohen said.

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