By Amanda Robert
Tom Neuckranz remembers his daughter Erika as extremely intelligent and beautiful, an outgoing, straight-A student with lots of friends.
But Erika, the youngest of his three daughters, became ill after she turned 13. As she started her yearlong struggle with depression, Neuckranz and his wife Ginny tried to help her.
"Even though we were relatively intelligent people, we didn't understand the illness at all," said Neuckranz, a partner at Williams Montgomery & John. "Erika didn't understand either. She masked her illness. She would always say she was fine … that's common. We didn't know the difference between the hormones of a 14-year-old girl and what's not normal."
After Erika committed suicide in April 2004, Neuckranz and his wife decided they needed to do something to help other children and their families overcome childhood and adolescent depression. They started Erika's Lighthouse, a nonprofit organization in Winnetka that teaches students, teachers, parents and the community about the illness.
Now, eight years later, the organization provides about 50 middle and high schools with curriculum that addresses depression. It also recruits teenagers to give presentations, offers its own handbook for parents and hosts an annual walk-a-thon to raise money.
Neuckranz, a civil trial lawyer for about 30 years, said he approaches the organization and its mission in the same way he approaches his law practice.
"Let's do away with the stigma so that we can talk about it and treat it," he said. "It's no different than any job or profession. Every law case that I have, it's the same issue. These are the facts. This is the law. How do we get to where we want to go? You just do it."
Many lawyers like Neuckranz become involved in mental health issues. Some discovered an interest in helping people with mental illness as young lawyers, while others decided to intertwine their passion for mental health and law later in their careers.
For these lawyers, their work becomes personal. They say they not only want to help people who feel misunderstood by most others in the community, but also improve the dialogue and laws that surround mental health issues.
In the 1970s, Mark Heyrman avoided Vietnam by working in a psychiatric hospital. When he attended the University of Chicago Law School two years later, he volunteered in the legal aid clinic and once again worked with people with mental illnesses.
(At right) Tom Neuckranz, a partner at Williams Montgomery & John, and his wife, Ginny, started Erika's Lighthouse, a nonprofit organization that teaches students, teachers and the community about childhood and adolescent depression, after the death of their daughter, Erika, in April 2004. The couple helped provide 50 middle and high schools with curriculum that addresses the illness.
Photos by Natalie Battaglia.
"The teacher had a number of clients who were mentally ill, and when he learned I worked in a mental hospital, he said I could have all those clients," he said. "I didn't even know such work existed."
Heyrman spent one year as a criminal defense attorney, but when the University of Chicago Law School received a grant for mental health advocacy, he returned as its newest clinical professor. Since 1978, he taught students to advocate for people with mental illnesses.
In addition to representing them in state and federal court, Heyrman and a team of about 15 students assist organizations like Mental Health America of Illinois and Mental Health Summit with legislation and policy work.
Heyrman said this training prepares new lawyers for challenging clients they may encounter in their practice.
"I've had clients who have fired me several times and then rehired me," he said. "People with severe mental illness have difficulty making up their mind.
"You have to spend more time paying attention and understanding what your client wants and communicating what you're doing to that client. That's true for all clients, but our clients are a little more of a challenge."
Heyrman finds that many lawyers and judges lump people with mental illnesses together even though there are different illnesses with different effects. In many cases, he and his students tell them things about mental health they never heard before, he said.
"What I think people haven't paid attention to is the way in which lots of legal problems are affected by untreated mental illness among many of our participants, and if we pay a little more attention to that, we might have better outcomes," he said.
Like Heyrman, Mark Epstein of Epstein & Epstein developed an early interest in mental health. After graduating from Northwestern University School of Law, he taught in the law school's legal assistance clinic and then led his own mental health patient advocacy project.
After a couple years of providing legal services to patients with mental health problems downtown and in the Chicago-Read Mental Health Center, he pursued his interest in mental health issues in private practice.
Epstein mostly handles guardianship matters, representing families who seek help for a relative.
His clients who become the guardian of someone with a mental illness can then access confidential medical information and make treatment decisions, he said.
He also works to change the law so that more people with mental illnesses receive help under the guardianship model. Right now, the majority of people who receive help are those who commit crimes, he said.
"One of the things I find troubling is that the ticket to treatment will be violence and danger," Epstein said. "When someone gets in the criminal system, they get hospitalized and have a decent chance of getting treated … There are a lot of people who need help who can't get that help because they don't present immediate danger."
As Illinois struggles to finance mental health services, Epstein said mental health professionals and lawyers should try harder to create an efficient justice system for patients and their families.
"When you bring to bear the resources of the judge and the various parties and the attorneys, and the application of due process and fair process, it can be a win-win situation," he said. "When that happens, and people are helped through intervention of the legal process, it's a great feeling. It's a feeling that something has been accomplished."
Meeting the need
In the past 10 years, Janet Piper Voss saw a complete shift in cases at the Lawyers' Assistance Program, a nonprofit organization that assists lawyers, judges, law students and their families with alcohol and drug abuse and mental health issues.
Voss, LAP's executive director, said the organization once served as the "go-to place if someone had an alcohol problem." But now, she said, nearly 35 percent of cases involve psychological problems.
"Of those, depression is absolutely the largest," Voss said. "We see even more advanced forms of depression, cases of suicide attempts, suicide … we see lots of anxiety and stress."
Voss also noticed an increase in law students who come to LAP. In the past year, the number of their cases jumped from 10 to 17 percent, she said.
"Law schools are very stressful places," Voss said. "They always have been, to some degree, but now there is the added concern about incredibly large student loans, fear about finding a job at all."
Robin Belleau, LAP's clinical director, practiced as a lawyer for eight years before deciding to get her master's degree in education and counseling. A former public defender and state's attorney, she often worked with the mental health and drug and alcohol courts.
"I would see people at their worst," she said. "I would get the call when they landed back in jail. I would patch them up, put a Band-Aid on them and send them back into the real world. But I didn't feel like I was truly helping them with a long-term recovery."
Belleau, who joined LAP in August 2010, now helps each of the organization's clients by assessing their level of need and directing them to proper services.
Larry Scanlon, LAP's clinical case manager, also practiced as a lawyer for several years before he decided he needed a more fulfilling career.
"I realized there was a great potential to apply psychology in the legal practice, whether dealing with adversaries, clients, judges," he said. "A lot of times there is not only the legal injury, but there's a psychological injury, like an injustice.
"People will seek to resolve a psychology injury through a legal means and it doesn't always satisfy them when they solve a case."
Since earning his master's degree in psychology and joining LAP in March, Scanlon meets lawyers who take their cases too personally. When they become emotionally involved in a case or get angry with opposing counsel or the judge, they lose the ability to perform for their client, he said.
Belleau said since lawyers learn to be problem solvers, they often think they can't ask for help with their own problems. She said one of LAP's main challenges is convincing law students and young lawyers to reach out when they experience stress or anxiety.
"They're not being weak, they're not being pathetic," she said. "It's really putting them at ease and saying you're not the only one in this position. If every other lawyer had it figured out, there would be no need for LAP."
Scanlon also said their clients benefit from working with two lawyers who understand the pressures of their personal and professional lives.
"We are aware not only of what it's like to stand in the shoes of the clients who walk in the door, but we can also help them get to the next step, so they can get healthy, improve themselves and continue to be successful in the practice of law," he said.