Mental health headlines Law & Society Symposium

The Charleston Law Review and the Riley Institute at Furman University hosted the 14th annual Law & Society Symposium — “Mental Health and the Law: Breaking the Stigma and Reforming the System” — at the Charleston Museum Auditorium on Friday.

“This year’s symposium is more important than ever, because of its subject matter,” said Charleston School of Law Dean and Provost Larry Cunningham. “These issues are personal.”

“In a time of extreme division in our society, mental health is more important than ever,” said Don Gordon, Executive Director at the Riley Institute at Furman University.

“My hope is this event serves as a starting point to break down the stigmas related to mental health and the law,” said Erika Collins, editor for the Charleston Law Review at Charleston School of Law.

Dr. George Woods, M.D., L.F.A.P.A. President, International Academy of Mental Health and the Law, Professor at Berkeley Law School, Chief Scientific Officer, Crestwood Behavioral Health, Inc. opened the symposium with a presentation titled, “The Long Road of Dissent: Building the Future You Want.”

“There is a growing demand by those we serve to no longer be identified by their deficits, but by their strengths, and to take their rightful place in our fruitful society,” said Dr. Woods. “For too long, jails and prisons have operated our mental health holding centers, and the legal system has perpetuated this cycle of illness and incarceration.”

Dr. Woods remarks set the stage for a compelling discussion on mental health and law in which three panels took a deeper dive into the subject that led to three main topics of discussion:

  • The intersection of mental health and the law
  • Keep the hear but avoid the burnout (mental health in the legal profession)
  • Initiatives in the Community

Carolyn Reinach Wolf, executive partner at Abrams Fensterman, LLC, director of the firm’s mental health law practice and former healthcare administrator, knows what it’s like to be stuck at the intersection of mental health and the legal system.

“There are a lot of laws that are set up to protect patients because there were a lot of abuses in the mental health system many years ago,” Wolf told us on the Charleston Law Podcast. “On the other hand, some of those laws now I think are archaic and are not helpful and supportive of families.”

“Often when you have an individual who has the illness, you’re working with the family,” said Wolf, a panelist on the topic discussing the intersection of mental health and the law. “But the person with the illness is telling the treatment team, ‘I don’t want you speaking to my family. I don’t want you sharing any information,’” said Wolf. “Now you have a family who has been supporting the person and now they’re shut out of what’s really going on with their loved one.

“The goal of working with families is to establish a roadmap or a plan to bring in support services to engage with the person who is ill. I’m not saying everybody should have blanket authority to access that information. But I believe you can set up a system where if it’s a family supporting them, who was navigating them through the system, should have access to that information.”

According to a recent research study (“Stress, drink, leave: An examination of gender-specific risk factors for mental health problems and attrition among licensed attorneys”), co-authored by Dr. Justin Anker, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Minnesota, mental illness and heavy alcohol use are “exceedingly high” in the legal profession, especially among women.

Anker shared his findings as part of the second panel of the symposium noting, “Of the 3,000 lawyers that were randomly sampled, about 30% were at high risk for ‘hazardous drinking,’” he said. “This can be interpreted within the range of what you’d see in alcohol abuse or possible alcohol dependents.”

Anker said three main factors contribute to growing concern:

  1. Work and family time
  2. Extreme work schedules
  3. Permissiveness towards alcohol in the workplace

“Women are at greater risk for mental health issues in comparison to men,” Anker told the Charleston Law Podcast. “More women considered leaving the legal profession due to mental health problems, burnout or stress.”

If there is a silver lining to be found in Anker’s findings, its can be found in the American Bar Association’s (ABA) lawyer assistance programs. “Mental health problems and substance use problems that can create barriers for seeking treatment,” said Anker. “People retreat. They don’t want to talk about that stuff because they think it may jeopardize their career. This campaign is really designed to decrease that stigma surrounding mental health issues, so legal professionals feel more comfortable seeking the help that they need.”


The Charleston School of Law is an ABA-accredited law school nationally recognized for its student-centric culture. Our faculty and staff are committed to preparing you for success both in the classroom and in the legal profession.

  • The Princeton Review ranks Charleston School of Law professors second in the country for faculty accessibility (2021)
  • Charleston School of Law faculty ranked among the top of The Princeton Review’s list of Best Professors in the nation (2016-2018)
  • Experiential Learning: Charleston School of Law students have access to about more than 150 externship sites, creating opportunities for experiential learning in the legal field.
  • Community Service: Charleston School of Law students have performed more than 241,000 community service hours (2004-current).
  • Students have won the National Tax Moot Court Championship for seven consecutive years (2012-2018)

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