Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in the Legal Profession

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Can We Undo Lawyer Depression? A Psychologist Weighs In

This blog is by Dr. Richard O’Connor, a psychologist in NYC who has treated patients with depression for almost 40 years. He is the author of the best-selling book “Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You” and appears in the documentary, “A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession.”

There’s some interesting research to suggest that happy people view the world through certain comforting illusions, while depressed people see things more realistically. For instance, the illusion of control. You can take a random sample of people and sit them in front of a video monitor with a joy stick, and tell them their joy stick is controlling the action of the game on the screen. (But the point of experiment is that it actually doesn’t). Depressed people will soon turn to the lab assistant and complain that their joy stick isn’t hooked up correctly. Normal people, on the other hand, will go on happily playing the game for quite some time.

The Elephant in the Room at Law Firms? Lawyer Depression

I was 40 years old when depression first struck.

I was a trial lawyer and managing partner at my firm. From the outside, I was successful: a high-paying career, interesting work, a great family, and lots of friends.

From the inside, however, something was terribly wrong.

There was a deep sadness that wouldn’t go away. Before this time, I had gone to therapists for stress-related issues. Therapy always worked. After a few months talking things through, I always felt better and stopped going.

But this time, it was different. Things didn’t get better.

Bottoms Up: My Drunk Dad, My Depression

My dad was an alcoholic.

He died at age 56 from too much drinking. Almost 40 years ago.

I was 19 at the time, a sophomore at a local state college. I lived upstairs from my Polish grandma who, was a big woman with arms as strong as an elephant’s trunk.

One morning, my Aunt Clara, who, with her husband Eddie (who was genuinely cross-eyed), lived with grandma downstairs, came up to tell me, “Your father died today.”

I had never heard my dad called “father.” It sounded formal, like, “The President of the United States died today.”

My dad had been ill for months. The year he died, 1981, Hospice wasn’t around. Most people, as sick as my dad with cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, met their end in the hospital.


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