16:14 PM

Survey sheds light on judges, mental health, and resilience

Top sources of stress include importance and impact of decisions, heavy dockets

A recent survey regarding judges and mental health titled “Summary of Stress and Resilience in the US Judiciary” was published in 2020 in the Journal of the American Lawyer. Authors included David Swenson, PhD; Joan Bibelhausen, JD; Bree Buchanan, MSF, JC; Hon. David Shaheed; and Katheryn Yetter. 

The study measured judicial stress and its impact, alcohol use, resilience strategies, and areas of interest. The survey was approved by an institutional review board and used an online format that offered anonymity. Analysis on measures of stress, its impact, and alcohol use showed high consistency and reliability.  

This was a large national survey, with 1,034 judges participating. Participants were 57% men and 43%  women. The judges served an average of 11 years on the bench, ranging from new judges to those with 50 years of service. A third were serving as a chief presiding or administrative judge. Most were active, full-time judges. One in 10 served in another status, such as part-time, retired sitting by designation, or senior judge. Overall, most judges reported low effects of stress.  

The top 10 sources of stress judges identified were: 

80% Importance and impact of decisions  
73% Heavy dockets  
68% Unprepared lawyers 
63% Self-represented litigants  
58% Dealing repeatedly with the same parties 
55% Public ignorance of the courts 
55% Long hours without a break  
50% Hearing contentious family law issues  
50% Isolation in judicial service  
50% Insufficient staff support  

The top 10 effects of stress judges reported included: 

39% Fatigue or low energy after hearing several cases in a row  
36% Sleep disturbance  
32% Interference with attention and concentration, distracted  
31% Ruminating or worrying about cases after they are decided  
28% Increased health concerns  
23% Apprehension or worry  
23% Loss of initiative 
22% Little time for family  
22% Physical discomfort 
21% Becoming irritable, short tempered, or sarcastic  

Potential symptoms of depression the judges endorsed were: 

39% Fatigue and low energy after several cases 
23% Not having initiative to do what I used to 
20% Preoccupation with negative thoughts  
18% Feeling work is work is no longer meaningful 
17% Can’t wait for day’s work to end 
15% Depressed mood 
13% Nothing to look forward to 
13% Numb to pleas of urgency 
11% Caring less about the outcomes of trials 
2.2% Thoughts of self-injury or suicide in the past year  

Signs of anxiety the judges endorsed included: 

28% Increased health concerns  
23% Apprehension or anxiety  
19% Intrusive thoughts, traumatic images 
13% Hard to ask colleague for critique  
7% Difficulty breathing, rapid breathing  
5% Worried might panic, lose control   

Depression and anxiety indicators were strongly inter-correlated.  

Alcohol use  

In total, 1,026 judges completed the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. Nine in 10 judges fell in the low-risk range, while one in 10 fell in the risky zone. In the risky zone, 8% were at increasing risk, 1% were at higher risk, and 0.5% were at possible dependence.  

Participants shared things they found helpful to deal with stress and boost resilience. Judges were already participating in these activities at high levels:  

89% Balanced nutrition 
82% Exercise-walking, jogging, biking, swimming 
77% Reading educational materials 
77% Social support from trusted people 
73% Diverse friends outside the field 
73% Hobbies 
71% Involving staff in planning and scheduling 
66% Adequate sleep, better sleeping habits 
55% Supporting and confronting colleagues 
51% Relaxation through stretching, yoga, tai chi 

The judges showed interest in doing these things more: involving staff in planning and scheduling; getting more or better sleep; supporting and confronting colleagues; relaxation; and participating in spiritual or faith traditions. Recommendations for judges included adopting at least one new well-being strategy, leading by example, learning more about judicial well-being and lawyer assistance program resources, and to consider getting involved yourself.   

National Resources for Judges include the Judicial Resilience Alliance at Judges.org/jra/organizations/; National Helpline for Judges Helping Judges at (800) 219-6474, which is routed through the Texas Lawyer Assistance Program; the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs; the Institute on Well-Being in Law at LawyerWellBeing.net; and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Suicide at SuicidePreventionLifeline.org or by dialing or texting 988 to talk or chat 24/7.  

The Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program is available at (800) 688-7859.        


  • Bibelhausen, Joan, JD; Buchanan, Bree, MSF, JD; Hon. Shaheed, David; Swenson, David X., PhD, LP. “COLAP’s 2019 National Judicial Stress and Resilience Survey: The Results Are In!” 2019 National Conference for Lawyer Assistance Programs, 2019.  
  • Swenson, David, PhD, LF; Bibelhausen, Joan, JD, Buchanan, Bree, MSF, JD; Hon. Shaheed, David; Yetter, Katheryn. “Stress and Resiliency in the US Judiciary,” Journal of The Professional Lawyer, American Bar Association, 2020.