Caring for Caregivers: How Immigration Professionals Can Prioritize Mental Wellbeing
In the demanding and intricate realm of immigration, where the lives of individuals intersect with complex (and often nuanced) legal processes, it is crucial to acknowledge the profound impact on the mental wellness of the professionals working in this field. A mental health crisis has been waging war against immigration lawyers, and understanding why is key to addressing the problem at its root.
Raising Awareness: A Real Look at the Mental Health Crisis in Immigration
Lawyers in general are proven to be subject to mental health concerns and more prone to exhaustion than professionals in other industries. In ALM’s Intelligence 2022 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey, research revealed that 44%of respondents agree that mental health problems and substance abuse are at a “crisis level” in the legal industry — a number that has grown each year since 2019.
To that end, the stressors faced by individuals undergoing the immigration process have been long linked to an increased risk of developing mental health conditions. An often overlooked part of this conversation, however, is how those stress factors – and others — also impact the legal immigration professionals working those cases.
Here are some key factors (in no particular order) that put immigration and global mobility professionals at an increased risk for mental health concerns:
- Emotional Burnout and Secondary Trauma: Immigration professionals are often confronted with intense, emotionally-charged experiences, dealing with complex legalities while providing support to individuals facing immigration challenges. The weight of responsibility, witnessing the distress of families separated or facing uncertain futures, and grappling with the limitations of the system can create immense emotional strain. To that end, constant exposure to clients’ traumatic experiences can lead to secondary trauma and vicarious traumatization for immigration lawyers. It is also important to note that many immigration professionals are highly empathetic individuals (as seen by the nature of their work), making them more likely to absorb the anxiety and traumas of their clients and leaving them vulnerable to burnout, compassion fatigue, and other mental health concerns.
- High-Stakes Nature Added to an Already-Heavy Workload. Immigration cases involve high stakes, as they can determine the future of individuals and families. The pressure to provide effective representation and achieve positive outcomes can create immense stress and anxiety for lawyers when mistakes can mean that your client has no options to immigrate. Not to mention, immigration lawyers often handle heavy caseloads due to the complexities and time-consuming nature of immigration law. The workload can be overwhelming, leading to long working hours, constant deadlines, and limited time for self-care or relaxation. And in this high-stakes environment, going to therapy and the gym can feel like you’re taking time away from helping people. Long hours, high-stress levels, and the emotional demands of the job can make it difficult to dedicate time to self-care, relationships, and personal well-being.
- Changing Policies and Uncertainty: Immigration law is subject to frequent policy changes, which can create uncertainty and challenges for lawyers. Keeping up with the ever-evolving landscape and adapting their strategies accordingly can be mentally exhausting and frustrating. To that end, a limited control over outcomes means that despite their best efforts, immigration lawyers may face situations where they cannot control the final outcomes of their clients’ cases. This lack of control can be disheartening and contribute to feelings of frustration, helplessness, and self-doubt.
- Professional Responsibility and Ethical Dilemmas: Immigration lawyers bear the weight of ethical responsibilities, such as ensuring access to justice, advocating for their clients, and maintaining confidentiality. Navigating ethical dilemmas can be challenging and add to the mental strain. Additionally, a common motion in immigration law to reopen a case after it has been denied in court is to file a bar complaint against the attorney who handled it and claim ineffective assistance of counsel. While sometimes appropriate, claims of this nature can also be misdirected and misused, often causing severe emotional impact for the attorney in question.
- Lack of Support and Resources: Immigration lawyers may face limited support systems and resources specifically tailored to their unique challenges. This lack of support can exacerbate feelings of isolation and make it harder to seek help for mental health concerns.
The Way Forward: Nurturing Mental Wellness in the Immigration Profession
There are critical ways we can all acknowledge and address the mental health crisis among immigration lawyers by advocating for supportive environments, access to resources, and self-care practices to promote their well-being and resilience. Depending on your role in an immigration professional’s life, here are a few best practices to keep in mind:
As a candidate:
- Practice empathy: Understand that for every immigration lawyer, the amount of stress and anxiety is at least equal to yours or higher, as they often absorb you and their manager’s stress at any given time. We all make mistakes; we are human. Be patient, gracious, and understanding throughout the process.
- Stay informed of external factors: Know that your immigration attorney is doing everything in their power to help you achieve desired outcomes and that external factors do often weigh in throughout the immigration process that are out of their control.
- Know the warning signs: Understand how to recognize some of the factors noted above and know who you can contact if concerns arise about the well-being of your attorney.
- Care for your own mental well-being: When you use resources to address mental health concerns or anxiety in your own life, you create a more supportive and healthy environment for everyone. Explore resources like The Immigrant Learning Center and Informed Immigrant to know what’s available to you.
- Create a supportive work environment and implement policies for well-being: Establishing policies that prioritize mental wellness, such as flexible work hours, time off for self-care, and access to mental health resources, demonstrates a commitment to the well-being of employees. These policies can contribute significantly to reducing stress levels and enhancing job satisfaction.
- Promote open dialogue: Fostering an environment where mental health concerns can be openly discussed and addressed without stigma is crucial. Encouraging regular check-ins, team meetings, or support groups can provide opportunities for employees to express their emotions, share burdens, and seek guidance.
- Provide training and education: Offering comprehensive training and education on mental health, self-care practices, and resilience-building techniques equips immigration professionals with the necessary tools to navigate the emotional demands of their work effectively.
For Immigration Lawyers and Global Mobility Professionals:
- Prioritize self-awareness and compassionate self-care: Recognizing and acknowledging one’s emotions, strengths, and limitations is vital in maintaining mental wellness. Regular self-reflection, introspection, and seeking support from trusted colleagues or mentors can help navigate the emotional complexities of the profession. For Roman Zelichenko, prioritizing self-awareness and self-care has become a major focus:
“We all have different thresholds for the amount of stress we can handle, and over time I’ve learned how much stress I can reasonably handle before burning out. Whether it’s going to a movie by myself or exercising more (or sometimes less), or sleeping in and resting, I’ve learned what makes me feel better, and I allow myself to do those things. I used to feel guilty about it, but now I’ve realized that taking time away from work and taking care of myself is actually more productive in the long run, more sustainable, and that clients, colleagues, friends, and family will always understand.”
- Establish firm boundaries: While the desire to help others is a driving force, it is essential to set boundaries to prevent emotional exhaustion. Establishing clear professional boundaries and managing workload effectively enables immigration professionals to better preserve their mental energy and emotional well-being.
- Building a supportive network: Cultivating a network of like-minded professionals who understand the unique challenges of the immigration field can provide a safe space for shared experiences, empathy, and support. Regular peer support meetings or discussion groups can foster a sense of community and remind professionals that they are not alone in their journey.
- Seek professional help: There should be no hesitation in seeking professional assistance when needed. Mental health professionals specializing in trauma or stress management can offer valuable guidance and tools to cope with the unique challenges faced in the immigration profession.
- Be nice to others in the field: As Dobrina Ustun, Immigration and Compliance General Counsel, explains, it’s important to prioritize kindness towards our colleagues.
“If you see someone struggling, offer assistance if you’re able to do so. Assist younger attorneys who are seeking guidance and provide them with the resources they need. Always encourage them to reach out if they have questions or concerns. We are all human, and we will all make mistakes. Instead of focusing on the mistake, let’s emphasize on bringing each other up. This kind of attitude will not only help us as immigration attorneys, but it will have a positive impact on our clients, families and friends.”
Some resources that are always available to you include: