LM Extras Mar 14, 2024

The Middle Tennessee Chapter Turns Grief into Action

After losing one of their own to suicide, chapter members have formed a Mental Health Task Force as a way to take care of each other.

Last fall was a particularly difficult time for ALA’s Middle Tennessee (MTALA) Chapter when they lost one of their own to suicide. For a smaller chapter that typically has around 40 members, the grief was profound. It was another deep cut for a close-knit group that had already lost two other members since 2021.

Valerie A. Danner

John D. Bowers, Chief Executive Officer at Thomson Burton PLLC, says this death left them shaken. Had they missed a sign? Did they ignore subtle hints? — the normal questions one asks after someone they love takes their own life.

As they gathered at the service, friends and family discussed how they hadn’t noticed that anything was bothering their friend. “It was unnerving,” says Bowers. Given that, a startling thought ran through Bowers’ mind: How many others might be out there struggling in silence? “How many other people are literally on that fine edge?”

That very moment is what inspired the chapter to take action. Kimberly D. Cannon, Chief Operations Officer at Bass Berry & Sims PLC; Suzanne Hartness, Business Consultant at Neal & Harwell, PLC; Dana L. Holsomback, CLM, Office Administrator at Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, PC; Maureen A. Robbins, Human Resources Manager at Bass Berry & Sims PLC; Vicki L. Scruggs, Regional Office Administrator at Spencer Fane LLP; Scott Thorsen from Network Solutions Group, LLC (NSG), one of their business partners; Teresa J. Walker, CLM, Tennessee Private Trust Services Director at Holland & Knight LLP; and Bowers formed the MTALA Mental Health Task Force. The task force’s goal is to not only educate members and firms about mental health, but to also find ways to promote self-care. 


It’s no secret the legal industry is extremely stressful and fast-paced. But it’s an industry that struggles with how to meet those challenges. ALM’s 2023 Mental Health Survey of the Legal Profession found that 52% of their nearly 3,000 respondents believe their firms don’t care about their mental health.

Much focus is given to the lawyers’ well-being, but as Bowers notes, there’s a trickledown effect: Stressed lawyers create stressful environments for support staff. Bowers says the first thing the MTALA Mental Health Task Force wanted to do was to survey area legal support staff about the state of their well-being — leaving the lawyers out of the data.

They crafted a survey and sent it out to area firms in Middle Tennessee. Of the 116 respondents:

  • 78% reported feeling comfortable discussing it with an external source.
  • Nearly 32% report that stress is heavily related to their workload; 38% say it affects them a moderate amount.
  • Nearly 27% say that they are under pressure to meet job demands every day; and most days (nearly 33%) feel under pressure to meet job demands.
  • 15.5% feel depressed, hopeless or sad several days of the week; 46.6% feel that way some days; 2.6% report feeling that way all the time.
  • 14% of respondents say their firm’s mental health initiatives had positively impacted them.

That 78% figure is key — respondents to MTALA’s survey don’t feel comfortable confiding in someone at work. With that in mind, the task force has reached out to the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP), which is available to lawyers and judges in need. Bowers notes the chapter already has a relationship with TLAP, so this was a logical starting place. The task force has asked TLAP to be made available for all those in the legal profession and their families — not just lawyers and judges. The case will be raised in April to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which overseas TLAP.

It’s just the first step in the work that Bowers and the task force want to do as it relates to mental health and supporting one another.

“No one shows up to work and is just a worker. Everybody has lives outside of work. … How does that play out at work? Because it always does. It affects you personally and sometimes you don’t realize it,” says Bowers.

“We’ve got to get engaged in our communities where we’re having those meaningful conversations and directing people to resources when they are needed.”

Another resource the MTALA Mental Health Task Force recommends is the Mental Health First Aid Certification from the National Council for Mental Health. ALA regularly offers the program, and in February MTALA sponsored the certification training for 15 chapter members and business partners who signed up. For Bowers, the program lifted a weight off his shoulders.

“I’m a solutions guy. When someone says, ‘oh, there’s a mental health issue,’ I think I need to find a solution,” says Bowers. “[Mental Health First Aid] was liberating for me because the main thing I learned is that I don’t need to have a solution. I need access to resources, and I need to come armed with four or five questions to ask in terms of severity to see what’s going on. We merely need to be able to tell people, ‘Hey, I care about you. You need help. Let me connect you to some resources.’ And that’s what this program did for me.”

MTALA’s Mental Health Task Force also hopes to inspire other chapters into action, including through a new movement they are calling #LovedJennie. (In addition, Bowers is happy to share the questions they used for the survey, should any chapters like to issue their own survey.) If the last six months have taught him anything, it’s how vital it is to really look after one another.

“We’ve got to take care of ourselves. We’ve got to get engaged in our communities where we’re having those meaningful conversations and directing people to resources when they are needed. We can encourage our firms to have services available. [Mental health] is an issue we’ve got to get ahead of it because coming in on the backend of it is a recipe for disaster.”

Conversations about mental health can be difficult to start. But just as CPR helps even those without clinical training to assist an individual having a heart attack, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) prepares participants to interact with a person experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis. Mental Health First Aiders learn a five-step action plan that guides them through the process of reaching out and offering appropriate support. ALA offers this training from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing every quarter. .