The Struggle with Mental Illness

The struggles of people who suffer from any mental illness are all too often hidden or ignored. No matter how progressive we like to think we are, there’s still a stigma attached to mental illness. People who have conditions ranging from depression to schizophrenia to personality disorders are often forced to suffer in silence, fearing judgment from others for something they can’t control.

I’ve probably represented well over 100 people who have mental illness in a variety of hearings. I’ve done mental health commitments, where the client’s condition was so severe they’d become a danger to themselves or others. I’ve advocated for clients trying to get Social Security Disability benefits after their symptoms became so debilitating it prevented them from working. I’ve handled numerous criminal cases where mental illness played a large role in the commission of the crime.

Not only do I have a lot of experience with mental illness in my professional life, but I have plenty of experience in my personal life, as well.

What all this experience has taught me is that, for whatever reason, the mental health population is still a forgotten one. Although a recent study showed that 1 in 5 Americans suffers from some form of mental illness, those that do are regularly treated differently than people who have a physical condition.

I regularly hear from clients that they don’t want their mental illness discussed in court or used as part of a defense because they’re too embarrassed. The mental health treatment provided in prisons is poor. Health insurance companies put a cap on how many times you can visit your therapist in a year. I’ve had Administrative Law Judges tell me they would not grant disability benefits for somebody because the claimant “only” had mental health issues, no physical, and mental health is not disabling. Judges and juries often ignore any mental health component of a case.

There’s no shaming of people who have physical disabilities; why do we shame or ignore people with mental disabilities? There’s a great internet meme that accurately illustrates the difference between how we treat people with mental illness versus those with physical illnesses.

Robin Williams’ recent suicide has shined a light on a previously taboo topic. Depression is real. Mental illness is real. It’s not something to be embarrassed about, and it’s certainly not something that should have a stigma attached.

Many people are now coming out and sharing their stories of how they’ve silently struggled with mental illness. My friend, Nick Falsone, a blogger and editor at my local newspaper, shared his story on the front page of Sunday’s paper. His bravery, and the bravery of everybody else speaking out, is admirable and an inspiration.

My hope is that, moving forward, more people will recognize that mental illness is a real thing. It’s not something a person can just snap out of. It has an effect on almost every aspect of their life. As a lawyer, I see just how many areas of a person’s life it can affect. The legal system needs to recognize it; society needs to recognize it. And then we can move from an attitude of judgment and embarrassment to one of acceptance.

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When Should I Hire An Attorney?

I get this question a lot – do I really need an attorney? And if I do, how quickly do I need to hire one? The answer is fairly simple. If you’re involved in the legal system, or there’s even a possibility you may be, you should have an attorney. If you need one, you should hire one immediately.

I practice in a few different areas of law, but it’s same across the board – most, if not all, legal situations require an attorney. Why? Take Criminal Defense, for example. From the moment you come in contact with the police, they are looking for ways to convict you. You have certain rights available to you, and those rights need to be protected.

I wouldn’t even go in front of a judge for a traffic ticket without an attorney. Sometimes, it’s not as simple as whether you did it or not. With all crimes, there are certain things that must be proven, and an attorney will know how to adequately fight the case. Also, there are certain defenses that may be available for any number of charges, and the attorney is in the best position to understand when these defenses apply and how to successfully present them. Even the most clear-cut case may be winnable with the help of a good attorney.

In Personal Injury cases, you need to start preserving evidence immediately after the incident. You also want to have somebody for any insurance adjusters, witnesses, and possible plaintiffs to communicate with so you don’t say or do anything that could harm your case. Again, an attorney should be hired immediately.

I have a family member who was in a car accident a few years ago. She sustained injuries, and at the time didn’t know how lingering the effects may be or how they would affect her life. Back then, I was working at another firm that didn’t handle Personal Injury cases and I had signed a no moonlighting agreement, so I couldn’t help her. I suggested to her that she hire a Personal Injury attorney right away, which she did, and I’m glad she followed that advice. There were a lot of unexpected issues that came up, both with the other driver’s insurance carrier and her medical treatment, and she would have been lost if she didn’t have that attorney to guide her through the process and advocate on her behalf.

The same is true for the other areas of law that I practice – Workers Compensation, Social Security Disability, and Animal Law. Even if you don’t know that you’ll get criminal charges, or that you’ll be out of work for an extended period of time, or that your injuries will linger, you should have someone on your side, ensuring that your rights are protected and that you’re giving yourself the best chance at a positive outcome in your case.

If you’ve found yourself involved in the legal system in any way, you need a qualified attorney. Contact The Fliszar Firm today to schedule a free consultation and make sure your rights are protected.

Women Lawyers: Working in a Man’s World?

When I started law school in 2007, I knew that the legal field was still one dominated by men. According to the American Bar Association, at that time women only accounted for 30.1% of the over 1,000,000 lawyers in the country. Only 17.9% of partners at private law firms were women, and only 16.6% were general counsel at a Fortune 500 company. The numbers were just as low for female judges at the federal level. Now, 7 years later, women still only account for 33.3% of all lawyers, 19.9% of partners, and 21.6% of general counsel at a Fortune 500 company. What I’ve learned in my time as a practicing attorney is that many of the men in the field, especially the older men, and even some of the women, believe the field is a man’s world and do not treat the women as equals. Here are just a few of my experiences.

There’s one county that I absolutely hated going to when I first started litigating because nobody believed that I was an attorney. They have a very old school way of thinking, and even the tipstaff who check people in and run the courtroom are of an older generation. So, when I first started going, I would attempt to check in and would have to stand there and convince people I was an attorney despite the fact that I was in a suit, carrying files, and pulling a rolling suitcase behind me. When I would give the staff my name, the most common response was “oh, are you a court reporter?” No, I’m an attorney, I’d reply, and once they got over their shock they’d change their attitude and be much more professional with me. Despite the same staff working the court every time I went down there, it still took at least a dozen trips to that court before they stopped asking me that question and actually recognized me as an attorney. Another time, in that same county, I went into the courtroom, suit on and files in hand, and tried to walk to the front and speak with my incarcerated client. The sheriff stopped me and said I wasn’t allowed up there, although I saw a gaggle of male attorneys talking to their clients. I asked him if he was denying my client his right to speak with his attorney, and the male sheriff shook his head and said “oh sorry, I thought you were his girlfriend” and let me through. Apparently I’d been demoted from court reporter to defendant’s girlfriend.

In another county, I’ve built a very professional and friendly working relationship with the district attorneys there. So, during a day of status hearings for pending cases, the DA called my case near the top of the list and ahead of many of the older male attorneys. When I returned to my seat I overheard two male attorneys complaining about how quickly I’d been called when I was clearly younger than them. As I gathered my things I jokingly said it must be that I’m there too much. One of them said “actually, no, I think it’s just because you’re blonde.” If I’d been a young man called before this guy, do you think he’d say something like that?

My first time in another county (which, by the way, is very small and backwoods), I wasn’t sure how they ran their hearings so I stopped and asked one of the men who had just been having a friendly conversation with another gentleman. He refused to help me and said “what do I look like, a Public Defender?” and walked away. I assumed he didn’t think I was an attorney and thought I was a pro se defendant trying to get free legal advice.

These are just some of my favorite interactions with male attorneys. But these types of experiences don’t stop with attorneys. I’m definitely treated differently by clients than the male attorneys in my office. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve covered hearings for one of the male attorneys in my office and been treated incredibly rudely and disrespectfully by the client, only to be told by the attorney I was covering for that they’d never had that problem with that client. I’ll do consults with potential clients who will then tell me they’d like to speak to one of the male attorneys before hiring our firm, or that they want one of the other attorneys to represent them just because I’m a woman. On the other hand, I have one client who hired me just because I’m a female because he said I’m a very good looking young woman. In his mind, we’ll get at least one male on the jury who will side with me just because of my looks, which means he’ll get a not guilty verdict despite the horrible facts of his case.

Thankfully, the PA Bar Association has a very active Commission on Women in the Profession on which I serve. Its purpose is to advance and empower women in the legal profession. Through that committee I was assigned a female attorney mentor, Lisa Benzie, who is just as dedicated to empowering women, especially women lawyers, as I am. She’s encouraged me to attend things like the PBA Women in the Profession retreat, the Dauphin County Bar Association DIVA award presentation, and become more active in the committee. This has certainly given me a new outlook on being a female working in a man’s world. I no longer take it personally and almost laugh when things like this happen because it is so ridiculous.

Once men see me in action and watch what I’m able to do as an attorney, I always get more respect and a completely different attitude than before. Obviously, I’m still treated differently and probably will be for quite some time. I have a strong support system that I can vent to, but more importantly, I have teammates who are helping change the legal profession from a man’s world to one of equals.