Depression’s Negative Thinking

Years ago, when I had just been told I had something called “depression,” I was having a tough time accepting it – after all, I was a litigator, a good-slinger extraordinaire.  The only thing that I thought could bring me down was a lucky pistol shot at High Noon.

During a talk with my therapist in the beginning of my recovery a decade ago, I told him all the negative thoughts I was having about my life. My counselor, a large, white -bearded older man with an Obi Wan Kenobi-like aura, gently told me, “Dan that is depression talking.” Somehow that got through to me; somehow I knew it was true.

My counselor, pillar of Jedi knowledge that he was, had helped me look through a sort of psychic telescope into the constellation that was my patterns of depressive thinking.  All people who have struggled with depression must do combat with their negative thoughts.  They must – usually with a therapist’s help – begin to see that THEY are thinking these thoughts and they’re not just HAPPENING to them.

Negative Thoughts – and Lots of Them

It has been estimated that we have anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 thoughts a day. If your ideas about life are predominantly downbeat, imagine how many negative thoughts you are generating daily—thousands upon thousands.

In the magazine Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano writes:

“One of the features of depression is pessimistic thinking. The negative thinking is actually the depression speaking. It’s what depression sounds like. Depression in fact manifests in negative thinking before it creates negative affect. Most depressed people are not aware that the despair and hopelessness they feel are flowing from their negative thoughts. Thoughts are mistakenly seen as privileged, occupying a rarefied territory, immune to being affected by mood and feelings, and therefore representing some immutable truth.  

Compounding the matter is that negative thinking slips into the brain under the radar of conscious awareness and becomes one of the strongest of habit patterns. People generate negative thoughts so automatically they are unaware that it is happening; that it is actually a choice they are making.”

Lawyers are particularly prone to this type of pessimistic thinking which helps explain why their rates of depression are about twice that – twenty percent – of the general population.

In recent article in The Wall Street Journal wrote about this very topic:

“Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist and proponent of ‘positive psychology,’ observes that lawyers experience depression at rates that are 3.6 times as high as that of other employed people. They also abuse alcohol and illegal drugs at rates above what’s seen in non-lawyers. Why is this? In part, he says, the law selects people with a glass-half-empty attitude. His research has found that people who score low on an optimism test do better in law school. ‘Pessimism, he writes, ‘is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence.

A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being’’.

The Big Ten

For us to start making different choices about what kind of thoughts we think, it’s important to see the patterns, the way these false thought patters take place over and over again.  Here are some examples of depressive thinking:

1.      False extremes – “the tendency to evaluate [one’s own] personal qualities in extreme, black-and-white categories; shades of gray do not exist.”

2.      False generalization “after experiencing one unpleasant event, we conclude that the same thing will happen to us again and again.”

3.      False filter “we tend to pick out the negative in every situation and think about it alone, to the exclusion of everything else.”

4.      False transformation “we transform neutral or positive experiences into negative ones.”

5.      False mind-reading “we may think we can tell what someone is thinking about us, that the person hates us or views us as stupid. But such negative conclusions usually are not supported by the facts.”

6.      False fortune-telling “we expect catastrophe and the expectation itself produces hopelessness and helplessness.”

7.      False lens “we view our fears, errors, or mistakes through a magnifying glass and deduce catastrophic consequences. Everything then is out of proportion.”

8.      False feelings-based reasoning depressed persons “tend to take their emotions as the truth. They let their feelings determine the facts.”

9.      False “shoulds” – “Our lives may be dominated by ‘shoulds’ or ‘oughts,’ applied to ourselves or others. This heaps pressure on us and others to reach unattainable standards.”

10.  False responsibility – “when we assume responsibility and blame ourselves for a negative outcome, even when there is no basis for this.”

A common theme running through much of this type of thinking is a self-judgment of inadequacy and, as a result, the depressed person notices negative, misfortunate circumstances but ignores positive, fortunate circumstances.

Overachievers and perfectionist that they are, depressed lawyers may frequently receive positive feedback concerning his or her performance at work. For example, a depressed lawyer may have a caseload of one hundred cases.  He might have the upper hand on 90%, but struggles with the 10%.   This lawyer sees his struggle with the handful of cases as confirming what a loser he or she is, incompetent and unable to keep up “like everyone else.” The many positive comments made by colleagues or staff are not even remembered.

Because of the belief that he or she is inadequate, and his or her tendency to only notice negative experiences, the future is viewed as certain to be gloomy, dismal, and painful: “I’ll never make partner,” “I suck as a lawyer.”

Negative thinking sounds, to the outside observer, to be obviously false or negatively skewed. If so, just why do depressives repeatedly think like this over and over again?  Are they idiots?

No, it’s because depressive thinking is “automatic.” It is not the result of thinking the situation through objectively – ironically enough, something lawyers are trained to do.

It just happens rapidly without any reflection.

So it’s the event itself that is sad, not life in general. And even if this thought or feeling arises, it is only temporary.

Depressive thinking leads to depression, leads to depressive thinking, leads to. . .

As we explain these thinking styles you will see how each helps to maintain depression, by altering how we perceive reality.

It’s these thinking styles that make it so hard to see an end to the depression, as they limit our possibilities of thought. Once these patterns take hold, the emotional arousal they cause begins to affect us physically.

If you are thinking now “Yeah, but you don’t know my life” – remember: there is nothing so awful that you can imagine that someone somewhere hasn’t survived without becoming depressed.

It is not your fault if you are depressed, but there are concrete, effective things you can do about it.

How to Kick Negative Thinking’s Butt

Again, Estroff Marrano offers some ways to combat negative thoughts:

  • Distract yourself. Engaging, pleasant activities, such as exercise or hanging out with friends, are best. Once you are feeling more positive, you will be better able to solve problems.
  • Stop that train of thought. Think or even tell yourself “Stop!” or “No!” when you start to ruminate.
  • Write it down. Tracking your ruminative thoughts in a journal can help you overcome depression by organizing those thoughts and relieving yourself of their burden.
  • Solve a problem. Even taking a small step toward solving one problem that is weighing you down will help with overcoming depression. Data show a strong link between goals you cannot achieve and depression-inducing ruminative thinking, so start problem solving.
  • Identify triggers. Figure out which places, times, situations, or people are most likely to cause a bout of rumination, and find ways to avoid those triggers or manage them better. Mornings and evenings are the times when ruminative thinking is most likely.
  • Meditate. Mindfulness techniques can help you get some distance from the thoughts that trouble you, while at the same time reducing stress.
  • Stop linking small goals to big goals. For example, you may need to challenge a belief that achieving big goals (such as happiness) completely depends on succeeding at smaller goals (such as losing five pounds).
  • Get therapy. Seek cognitive therapy techniques to help you question your thoughts and find alternative ways of viewing your situation.

Try, day by day, to chip away at the conclusion that depression just happens to you, or that it’s just a disease.  Try to remember, that whatever it’s causes, negative thinking is a powerful fuel to help it arise and keep it going.  Think about it.

 

 

 

In the Beginning – Depression in Law School

The term clinical depression finds its way into too many conversations these days. One has a sense that something catastropic has occurred in the psychic landscape – Leonard Cohen

Everything has its beginning:  the Cosmic Bang, the French Revolution and depression in the legal profession.

There is little doubt that for many, depression begins in law school. One study of law students found they suffered from depression at the same rate as the general population before entering law school. Just two months into the school year, however, their negative symptom levels had increased dramatically.  By the spring of their first year, 32% of the same law students were depressed. By the spring of their third year, the number had risen to 40%.  Two years after graduation, 17% of the students – about twice the rate of depression experienced by the general population – were still depressed.  Such elevated levels of depression have been corroborated by later studies.

Plug in these stats and an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 of this country’s 150,000 law students struggle with depression at some point during their law school experience

Andy Benjamin, J.D., Ph.D., the lead researcher in the above study and others that have looked at law student and lawyer depression, wrote me last summer:

“Since the publication of our research about law student and lawyer depression, depression still runs rife for law students and practicing attorneys – nearly a third of all law students and lawyers suffer from depression.  The data to support this statement have been published since the early eighties when the studies were first conducted.  Several subsequent empirical studies have corroborated the grim findings up until 2010.  As the stress, competition, and adversarial nature of the profession have continued to take their toll, not surprisingly, the rates of depression have not changed.  Law students and lawyers remain at the greatest risk for succumbing to depression, more so for any other profession.  After nearly forty years of compelling evidence about the prevalence of the severity of depression for the legal profession of law, more meaningful systematic changes must be implemented throughout the professional acculturation process of law students and lawyers.”

It’s difficult for the legal establishment to face all of this. William M. Treanor, immediate past dean of Fordham Law School, told The New York Law Journal last year: “Depression is a very important issue that often gets swept to the side.  It’s a real concern and a problem in the legal profession. Studies indicate that it is common among law students and common among lawyers. Given that, it’s important to try to figure out ways to combat it and to let people know if they are suffering, they are not alone.”

As author Kathleen Norris wrote, “The religion of America is optimism and denial.”  We’re a nation of suck-it-uppers; a people who drive their inner pain deeper and deeper into themselves until they break. The denial of depression in the law is both institutional and individual.

In Institutional Denial About the Dark Side of Law School, Florida State University Law Professor Lawrence Krieger wrote:

“There is a wealth of which should be alarming information about the collective distress and unhappiness of our [law] students and the lawyers they become.  We appear to be practicing a sort of organizational denial because, given this information, it is remarkable that we are not openly addressing these problems among ourselves at faculty meetings, and in committees and without students in the context of courses and extracurricular programs.  The negative phenomena we ignore are visible to most of us and are confirmed by essentially unrebutted empirical evidence.”

Attorney Andrew Sparkler, a friend of then fellow Fordham law student David Nee who suffered from depression (unbeknownst to his friends) and committed suicide in his third year of law school, observed, “To admit that you are depressed [in law school], to yourself or to others . . .  , is a weakness and if you’re in a shark tank of hyper-aggressive folks around you, you’d be hesitant to expose it because why would you fess up to anyone that you have a problem?” Sparkler, his friends and the Nee family started the Dave Nee Foundation to address law student depression and suicide.

It doesn’t get much better when one graduates and enters the job market.  A John Hopkins study looked at 104 occupations to determine which ones had the highest incidence of depression.  Lawyers topped the list and were found to suffer from depression at a rate of 3.6 times that of other profession studies.  Other studies have found that about 20 percent of all lawyers struggle with depression.

Plug in these stats and an estimated 200,000 of this country’s 1 million lawyers are hurting.

Obviously, something is really rotten in Denmark.

There have been several theories bantered about as to why law students suffer from such high rates of depression: pessimistic thinking styles taught in law school (“learning to think like a lawyer”), personality types that go to law school, a breakdown in inner values and the current nasty economy and stress to find and maintain a good job.  The New York Times recently ran an article, No Longer Their Golden Ticket, – I was interviewed for this one – which spoke about the stress and uncertainty that law school students’ face:

“[The] days of [high pay and full employment] are over. As the profession lurches through the worst economic slump in decades, with jobs and bonuses cut and the internal pressures to perform rising, associates do not just feel as if they are diving into the deep end, but rather, drowning.”

However, there has been pushback against the theory that law school even causes much psychic damage.

In an article by University at Michigan Law Professor James Justesen White, Maiming the Cubs, he takes issue with Professor Krieger theory and argues that the law school experience does not “. . . cause permanent and irreversible change and that the ills of lawyers cannot be traced in any meaningful way to the stresses of the three years in law school.”  He concludes:

“I wonder, too, whether the anxiety and depression that we observe in some of our law students is the unavoidable consequence of the challenge of hard learning and of confronting the looming need to prepare to behave like a lawyer.  Soon after they come to law school, students must sense that however hard Contracts and Torts is, learning to be a successful practicing lawyer is harder, and that the road to success in the profession is even less clearly marked than the road to law school success.”

Sorry, I just don’t agree.

My take on law school depression

I think we must look at what makes people more vulnerable to depression before they enter law school – those 10% who already have depression or are at risk for developing it before they register for their first 1L class. For most, there is a genetic or family history of depression. Likewise, there is a history of family dysfunction: for example, alcoholism, physical and emotional abuse and/or neglect.   These folks bring those major risk factors into law school. It is my view that law school doesn’t cause depression; rather, it may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for those who already have some risk for it. 

Pessimistic thinking and persistent stress , both powerful dynamics in law school, are known triggers for depression.  When these influences are mixed in with other pre-law school risk factors, law school creates a “perfect storm” for depression to happen.

We tend to mix up law student unhappiness and dissatisfaction with depression.

They’re not the same thing; not even close. Unhappiness and discontent are relatively transitory; other emotions aren’t pushed to the margins or extinguished. We are adaptable in response to our environment. We might feel stressed or exasperated by the law school grind, but everyone  bumps up and down throughout their days.  We deal with our stress and balance ourselves out either with exercise, socializing or just by having stress resilient genes.  Not so with depression.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., in his best-selling book, Undoing Depression, writes:

“We confuse depression, sadness, and grief.  But the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality—the ability to experience a full range of emotion, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief.  Depression is not an emotion itself. It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness.  When we feel our worst, sad, self-absorbed, and helpless, we are experiencing what people with depression experience, but they don’t recover from those moods without help.”

There is also a biochemical poverty about depression; the scarcity of neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine that wreck havoc in our brains and set the stage for depression.  As I wrote in Trial magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression, the grind isn’t just about long hours in the office or law library cubicle, but the grinding up of our nervous systems.

We have a sense that such a lifestyle can be problematic to our happiness, but we’re willing to keep marching to that beat in the hope of later rewards (e.g. money, security, partnership). Yet, I can’t help but think that we’re dimly aware, if at all, of the risk we put ourselves in for major depression.

Besides the psychological-physiological links to depression, we live in a culture that breeds melancholy.  How could this not eek its way into the law school experience?

Maybe it’s the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our times; the torpor of the imagination which fails to inspire our young people to live an engaged and spirited life in the law, or the cynicism to think that such a life is even possible that worries me. Or, by the time young people get to law school, they’re so jaded by our consumer driven culture they just want the diploma to start making the big bucks. All of this contributes to depression, to a lonely society that undermines what it means to live a decent, healthy and happy life.

In 2008 the American Bar Association launched a Mental Health Initiative to address mental health problems on law school campuses.  See the Mental Health Toolkit for Student Bar Organizations and Administrators distributed as part of this effort.  Such initiatives’ involve mental health days (e.g. check out Marquette Law School) where they had out a document from Professor Krieger called The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress , “wellness” web pages on law school websites (e.g. check out the one at Harvard Law School) and referrals to a school’s counseling center (e.g. check out Cornell Law School).

While laudable, they’re an arm’s length effort to confronting such a deeply personal and painful human experience.  Moreover, it seems like any presentation on the issue of depression in law schools is limited to first year orientation. What about the second and third year students? Studies conclude that depression rates continue to rise into the second and third year.  If that’s true, what is being done to help these students?  Another query: Just how many of the people who speak at these programs are law students or lawyers who actually had or are currently suffering from depression and disclose it?  My hunch is few, if any.

Why should that matter?  Because the students need to hear it straight-up. They need to listen to someone in the trenches of a profession they’ll soon be entering.  Without such depression experiences, a speaker is like someone trying to enlighten someone about the dangers of smoking and cancer, but has never smoked. Wouldn’t it be a more powerful, credible and informative experience for students to listen to a law student and/or a practicing lawyer, who has depression and is willing to talk about it?

Instead, students are served up programs, usually offered up by well-meaning Dean or Vice-Deans of Student Affairs and therapists from a University’s Counseling Center. There’s a lump-it-all-together approach to it all.  I was asked a few years back, when I was just beginning my advocacy work, to give a brief, 15 minute talk on depression. The school trotted out a variety of people in fifteen minute increments to talk about stress, drinking, drugging and, eventually, depression. Speaking in that big first year classroom, I was reminded of the ancient Greek amphitheaters.  Many of the Greek dramas were tragedies.  And make no doubt about it, depression is a tragedy.

I was saddened by the whole charade, the paucity of imagination and effort that went into addressing such a critical problem; the let’s pool this list of mental ills together into a small program on “mental health.”  I sensed that the students failed to see how any of this was connected to them.  The sliver of time allocated to depression couldn’t help but leave the students with the impression that the school really didn’t take the problem that seriously.

Over 130 million people suffer from depression worldwide on a planet where it is the leading cause of disability. In our country, it’s also the leading cause of disability and some 20 million people are afflicted.  It’s been characterized as an “epidemic.”  If that’s true, what does that say about the higher rates of law student and lawyer depression?  Just what adjective could one use to describe the scope of the problem?

 Addressing  Depression In Law School – Really

Here’s what can be done right now:

1. Law Schools – show the thirty minute documentary, “A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession.”   Copies of the film on DVD are available form the Erie County Bar Associaiton. Here’s a trailer clip of this recently finished film:

2. Have someone come in to speak to the students that are in the legal profession who has suffered from depression to reach these students.  Give it more than 15 minutes of your time and have programs for second and third year student on this critical topic.

3. Law Students – show up, watch the film and think long and hard about it.

Finally, I want to urge all of you reading this blog to write in and express your views about your law school experience, whether you’re in school now or it’s been thirty years.  There’s much to be gained by such sharing. Please write.

Further reading:

Todd David Peterson & Elizabeth Waters Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology, 9 YALE JOURNAL OF HEALTH POLICY & ETHICS (Summer, 2009); Susan Daicoff, Lawyer Be Thyself: An Empirical Investigation of the Relationship Between the Ethic of Care, the Feeling Decision-making Preference, and Lawyer Well-being, 16 VIRGINIA JOURNAL OF SOCIAL POLICY & LAW (2008-2009); Patrick J. Schlitz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 VANDERBILT LAW REVIEW 871 (1999) and Depression and Anxiety in Law Students: Are We Part of the Problem and Can We Be Part of the Solution?, 8 JOURNAL OF LEGAL WRITING INSTITUTE 229 (2002).

           

                                               

 

The Suicide of a Lawyer with Depression — Ken’s Story

This is a guest blog by Cincinnati, Ohio attorney Tabitha M. Hochscheid, Esq., a partner at the law firm of Cohen, Todd, Kite & Stanford, LLC.  In this moving tribute, she writes about her law partner and dear friend Ken Jameson who committed suicide in May of 2011 after a battle with depression.

How well do we know those with whom we spend our work days with?  Is it possible to practice with someone and be there friend for years yet, not truly know that they are suffering from the depths of depression?  Being around other attorneys can give us the camaraderie and support we need to grow and build our practice.  But, often times, people keep their emotional health a secret and suffer from depression in silence.  By the time their colleagues realize what is going on, it can be too late to do anything about it. My partner and friend Ken Jameson was one of the people.  This is his story. 

Ken Jameson was, by outward appearances, successful, well liked, a loving husband and father, a friend to everyone and a dependable partner.  In fact, Ken was perhaps the epitome of the well liked, client centered and dedicated lawyer many of us envision when we think of how lawyers should behave. On the inside, however, Ken was struggling with the depression which eventually took his life.

I first met Ken in the summer of 2007 for breakfast to discuss my interest in joining Cohen, Todd, Kite and Stanford, LLC.  Ken was so easy to talk to and we instantly bonded because he too had left a small firm to find a place to grow and build his practice at Cohen, Todd, Kite & Stanford, LLC.   After I joined the firm in January 2008, Ken was always available to help and support me and we grew into friends, as well as, colleagues.

Like so many attorneys, Ken built a practice by creating a network of referrals, by giving his clients personal service and building long term relationships.  He was an attorney who facilitated resolutions and provided estate plans for people of all income levels.  Ken enjoyed his work.  After joining the firm himself in 2006, his practice thrived.  He became a trusted member of the firm and was on the management committee.   Ken shared is life outside of the office with his wife and best friend of 35 years, Betsy, and three adult children of whom he was most proud.

Ken was a universally well liked person.  He conducted himself professionally in such a way that he never seemed to have conflicts with others.  Ken cared about his firm family, he always checked in on people if they were sick or if he knew you were under stress.  He was active member in his Church.  Ken took care of his physical health by walking 5 miles a day, attending Pilates classes twice a week and maintaining a healthy diet.  By all outward appearances, Ken had success in his work, a happy home life and seemed content.

However, Ken had underlying mental health issues.  Like many attorneys he had trouble sleeping well.  Sleep is something that eludes most attorneys from time to time, but his type of sleep loss was chronic.   He would fall asleep and wake up in just a few hours and not be able to go back to sleep.  As long as I knew Ken, he had this issue.  He tried relaxation techniques to help him sleep better, he read books about stress management and attempted to delegate work to others.  Ultimately, Ken was a self confessed perfectionist and as such, had an inner critic who told him he had to be at work all the time.

Most lawyers struggle with the challenges of building a law practice, client demands and finding out how to have precious downtime.  Ken was doing all the right things, but he still wasn’t able to sleep.  In March of this year, he took time out of the office due to exhaustion.  He went to see his family doctor and was prescribed something for sleep.   He tried to come back to the office part time within a few weeks but was unable to sustain a schedule.   Ken represented to those of us at work that he was exhausted and initially did not tell others what was really going on.

In late April, he left the office again.  This time it was lack of sleep and a pinched a nerve in his back.   With this new medical issue, his depression worsened.  He spent sometime in the hospital to adjust to new medications and was scheduled for back surgery.  At this point, Ken began expressing worry about the office and felt as if he was letting the firm down.  Finally, Ken had back surgery for the pinched nerve in the middle of May.  After the surgery, Ken seemed to be doing better; everyone thought his return to the office was imminent.

Ken never returned to the office.  On Sunday, May 22, 2011, I received a call from our office manager.    She informed me that Ken’s depression had worsened and that he had taken his own life that morning.  As the next few days unfolded, details began to surface.  Ken underwent surgery on his back and in the days following the procedure, had checked in with people at the office and had seemed like his old self.  Ken also visited his mother and called his best friend.  All the while, Ken meticulously planned how to take his own life.

No one can answer the question of what was going through his head or why he was in such despair that he took his life.  The next five days were difficult at the office.  People were in a state of shock and disbelief.  His office door has remained open since Monday, May 23, 2011.   A memorial was held the Saturday following his death and it was standing room only.   Ken clearly touched the lives of thousands and his life was remembered in eulogies by his friends, his sister and his wife.  It was touching to see so many people who loved him, but the confusion as to what occurred actually increased for many.

Do you ever really know the people we practice law with?  Everyone at the office felt they had a personal relationship with Ken.  But, did anyone of us really know what was happening.  It is easy now to look back and see the signs of Ken’s illness (sleep deprivation, self criticism, feeling of letting others down, a search for answers and inability to allow others to help) and to wonder what if anything could have changed the outcome.  Time, however, does not give us this luxury and these questions will never be answered.  The best that can be done is to acknowledge that Ken’s illness, depression, can be deadly. 

It seems that our profession gives little in return for years of hard labor.  Learning a way to balance the demands of the business of being a lawyer with the need for downtime is essential to one’s mental and physical health.  Ken’s depression is an all too real downside of the practice of law.  His suicide is a tragedy to his family, our law firm and to the legal community.  He was one of the “good” guys and the profession needs more people like him.

For those of us left behind we struggle for understanding and to carry on in spite of the sadness we each feel.  Inevitably when speaking with others we are confronted with the questions of why?  Most people will ask the normal questions – were there money problems, did he have marital problems or health issues.  The answer to these questions is no and then people just cannot fathom why Ken chose to end his life.   I know in my heart that, as the minister said during his memorial, that Ken felt he was “fixing” the situation.  Ken was a fixer and this was his only choice left.

I’ll always miss Ken Jameson.  The courage and commitment he showed to his clients, his family and those of us in business with him is something I admire.   However, his suffering in silence has left me and his other colleagues with regrets as to what we could have done to help.  In the end, however, Ken could not give himself permission to be less than perfect and eventually, felt those in his life were better off without him.  It is truly a sad ending to a beautiful life that could have been prevented.  My hope in sharing Ken’s story is that there will be greater recognition of depression and the despair that can accompany and that it will help someone struggling with these issues.  As for Ken, I hope he has found the peace that life did not provide.

Editors note — If you or someone you know suffers from depression and may have thought about suicide, visit the website of the national organization The American Association of Suicidology which contains great information, resources and how to get help. Lawyers can also contact  Lawyer Assistance Programs in their legal community.  To locate a program near you, visit the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs website.

How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression

Lawyers suffer from depression at an alarming rate.  I am one of them.

I have been a litigator for more than 22 years, and I didn’t suffer depression in the beginning of my career. But I did have trouble managing the stress of my practice. 

Over time, this constant stress developed into anxiety.  I started feeling like I couldn’t control everything.  I would go to bed fearing the problems and disasters to confront me the next morning.  After years of this, the pendulum swung from states of anxiety to states of depression.  Why did this happen?  It took me a long time to understand.

Recently, scientists have been focusing on the connection between stress and anxiety and the role they play in triggering and maintaining depression.  This is something that should be of concern to all lawyers, who carry high stress loads in their law practices.

Too Much Stress Can Lead to Anxiety

“Stress” is anything in our environment that knocks our bodies out of their homeostatic balance.  Stress responses are the physiological adaptations that ultimately reestablish balance.  Most of the time, our bodies do adapt, and a state of balance is restored.  However, “if stress is chronic, repeated challenges may demand repeated bursts of vigilance,” warns Dr. Robert Sapolsky, an expert on stress-related illnesses and author of the best-selling book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases and Coping. “At some point, vigilance becomes over-generalized, leading us to conclude that we must always be on guard – even in the absence of stress.  And thus the realm of anxiety is entered,” writes Sapolsky.

About 20% of the population will experience some form of anxiety disorder at least once in their lifetime.  Studies show that law students and lawyers struggle with anxiety at twice that rate.

Anxiety and Depression

Stress went on too long in my life as a litigator.  I had, indeed, entered the realm of anxiety.  I felt like I had a coffee pot brewing 24/7 in my stomach.  I became hypervigilant; each file on my desk was like a ticking time bomb about to go off.  At some point, the anxiety made me dysfunctional, and I was unable to do as much as I had before.  I felt ashamed of this.  I denied it to myself and hid it from others, but the litigation mountain became harder and harder to climb as the anxiety persisted over a period of years.

Sapolsky writes, “If the chronic stress is insurmountable, it gives rise to helplessness. This response, like anxiety, can become generalized: A person can feel . . . at a loss, even in circumstances that [he or] she can actually master.”  Helplessness is one pillar of a depressive disorder that becomes a major issue for lawyers because we think of ourselves as invulnerable superheroes who are the helpers, not the ones in need of help.  Lawyers often don’t get help for their depression and feel ashamed if they do.     

Many lawyers do not appreciate the connection between their stress and anxiety and their risk for developing clinical depression.  But the occurrence of anxiety disorder with major depression is frequent; in fact, 60 percent of people with depression are also suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Maybe this connection helps explain studies that find such high rates of both anxiety and depression in the legal profession.

Depression “is stress that has gone on too long,” according to Dr. Richard O’Connor author of the book Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety, and 21st Century Illness.  Many people with depression have problems dealing with stress because they aren’t “stress resilient,” writes O’Connor.  It’s not some central character flaw or weakness, but a complex interplay bewteen genetics and one’s experiences over a lifetime.

How our bodies and brains deal with stress and anxiety hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years.  This wonderful defense mechanism, which is wired into our nervous system, is called the fight-or-flight response.  When confronted with a threat – – whether real or perceived – – this response kicks in and initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that flood into our bloodstream and propel us into action to meet a threat.  This was an essential survival device for our ancestors who lived in the jungle and would have to flee beasts or fight foes trying to kill them.

Lawyers don’t fact these types of real life-or-death threats.  But they perceive life-or-death threats in their battles with opposing counsel while sitting in a deposition or sparring in the courtroom.  Our bodies respond as if we were being chased by a hungry lion.  Accordingly, the stress response can be set in motion by mere anticipation, and when humans chronically believe that a homeostatic challenge is imminent, they develop anxiety.

Over time, this chronic anxiety causes the release of too much fight-or-flight hormones.  Research has shown that prolonged release of too much cortisol damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) and the amygdala (a fear processing hub deep in the brain).  Another area of the brain, the cingulate (an emotion-dampening center located near the front of the brain), in tandem with the amygdala, helps set the stage for depression.

Lawyers need to learn better ways to deal with stress and anxiety to avoid the multiple triggers that can cause or exacerbate clinical depression.  Turning and facing those things that make us stressed and anxious, and doing something about it, gives us the best protection against depression.

My Desk, My Enemy: 6 Helpful Ways to Get Organized

I spend time – too much it – trying to keep my desk in check.

Like a taciturn child, it erupts with tantrums of disorganization. The fact that it’s a mess today seems unfair, as if a hole suddenly formed in the ceiling above me and dropped a cache of briefs, case opinions and half-used legal pads onto my workspace.

I shuffle the papers that lay before me. They look back at me.  Ten minutes go by.  I reshuffle everything all over again. Sound familiar?

Mind you, on the Clutter-o-Scale, my desk is only a 4 out of 10.  If so, why the grief?

Some of my angst comes from having trouble finding things.  But an equal measure comes from the sense that I should be more organized. We have made a religion out of organization in this country which has sprouted temples of crazed worship like The Container Store or Organize.com.  Maybe this growth industry is in reaction to how much stuff/junk/information we like or have to obtain and perpetually reorganize.  This mania has even spawned an inane reality T.V. show “Hoarders.”

Too many things compete for lawyers’ attention besides the usual culprits of returning phone calls, court appearances and last minute deadlines.  When you add a messy desk to an already stressed-out life, well, it becomes the enemy.

Desks are the pedestals of our productivity.  How we organize the stuff on them has a big effect on how well or if we get things done in a timely fashion.  But just as important as these practical concerns is the impact it has on our mental health.

What is your Organizational Style?

According to Kelly Lynn Anders in her book The Organized Lawyer, “Not everyone prioritizes about what the eye needs to feel relaxed. Some ideas work for some and not for others. That’s why it’s important to know your type.” She identifies four types of organizers:

Stackers organize by topic in stacks. They are visual and tactile and like to give the appearance of order. The busier these people are, the more stacks they have.

Spreaders are visual like stackers, but must be able to see everything they’re working on.

Free Spirits keep very few personal belongings around the work area. They like new ideas and keep reports, books, articles and magazines near.

Pack Rats have emotional ties to things. They like the feeling of fullness around them and like to tell stories about what’s in the office.

Which type are you?  She has a lot of useful suggestions, among them is color coding files. On her own desk, she keeps commonly used files close at hand. Because she identifies herself as a “stacker,” Anders avoids cabinets and other hidden spaces for her files.  “The reason I don’t have a lot of hidden storage is stackers have a tendency to squirrel things away,” she said. Check out some of her other suggestions at her website.

A Contrarian Point of View

Einstein considered his cluttered desk a help rather than a hindrance to his prodigious creativity.

While we don’t have his brain’s elephantine computing power, it’s worth considering that your desk mess might not be so bad after all.

Dr. Jay Brand, a psychology professor, argues that a squeaky clean desk doesn’t always equate with a productive employee. It can actually hinder personal efficiency because a person’s desk is an extension of his/her mind. That’s because our human memory has a limited capacity, or finite ‘cells’ available for storage and since most people do multiple things at once they almost immediately ramp their working memory to capacity. They need a place to park some of the information from their working memory into the environment and what more logical place than their desks?

According to Dr. Brand, “these cluttered desks that people use to store information from their working memory are called ‘cognitive artifacts’, and they expand a person’s capacity to think and utilize the environment”. He argues that companies with clean desk policies waste time by requiring workers to clean up their cognitive artifacts every night and re-clutter them the next morning. He points out that everyone has a different working style and piles can be organized topically, chronologically, or according to an individual system. As long as the pile means something to the person who made it, it is effective.

I’ve known plenty lawyers in this group.  But I ain’t one of them.  Maybe it has to do with my own depression over the years.  Or, as Kelly Anders suggests, it’s just my type that determines how I lay out the work space in front of me.

The Depressed Desk

When a lawyer has depression, motivation and organization are BIG problems.  A lack of energy blunts motivation.  We already know that it’s a good idea to keep our desk together, but there simply isn’t much neurochemical juice to get it done.    But, time or a court’s scheduling order waits for no one.  If we don’t keep the paperwork on the conveyor moving, we end up a casualty of our work days and add to the stress/anxiety/depression mix.

In her book Get it Done When You’re Depressed, Julie Fast writes:

“Many people equate depression with the inability to work. In reality, the problem is often the inability to feel like working.  People who are depressed assume that their lack of motivation is a sign of weakness, and if they could just buck up a bit, they would be more productive. But waiting until you feel like doing something is the single biggest mistake you can make when you’re depressed and need to get things done.”

Yes, we need to start working in spite of our desire not to.  Dr. John Preston, in the same book, elaborates further:

“Depressed people find it very hard to ignite this self-generated action due, in large part, to decreased metabolic functioning in the frontal lobes of their brain, which are responsible for initiating behavior.  So if a person waits a long time and not only not accomplish the non-rewarding tasks but also miss out on the big projects that can bring big rewards.”

So it appears that folks who aren’t depressed and are motivated people have ramped up brain metabolism.  I’m envious.  Yet, there is something we can do about it.  As I’ve written about before, consistent exercise helps boost the happy chemicals in our brains, jacks up metabolism and improves our motivation and focus.  Moving is motivating.

We must outfox depression.  It would have us do nothing.  So we must do something.   When I apply this simple wisdom to my day, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how my feelings catch up with my doing and how my doing affects my feelings.

My experience during bogged down moods, was that I’d get most things done, but it would take lots of energy.  When I’d come home from work, I’d be spent.

Six Simple Solutions

I agree with an observation made by Leo Babauta on his blog Zen Habits: “The most important thing to remember is that you must have a system in place, and you must teach yourself to follow the system.  Otherwise, you just clean your desk, and it gets messy again”.

Here are a couple of tried and true tips that have helped me:

1.   Get rid of all those pens. Only keep three or four.  More than that, and there’s too much ink in your work space.  If you love pen, keep your stash at home.  I often troll the pen aisle at Office Max — strange, but true. So I know how difficult it is to part with them.

2.   Take home any books that you don’t use on a regular basis. It’s just more clutter and keeps you from easily putting your hands on the important stuff you need to do your job.

3.   Hide cords – these are like a floating octopi with tenticles that seemingly go everywhere.  Use twist-ties or coil your cords up.

4.   Only keep on your desk what you need for that day. Then section off your desk and workspace so that everything has a specific space.

5.   Have a dump day.  Take everything off your desk and out of your drawer and then put it in a big pile. Then, sort through what is garbage and what you really need throughout the workday.

6.   Schedule a date and time to clean your desk.  Ideally, at the end of a workday.  Weather permitting, do it on Friday’s around 4 so that I start my Monday fresh.

The Company We Keep

Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends we choose – Tennessee Williams, playwright

People in and out of the law often ask, “What causes such high rates of depression in the legal profession?”

I’ve written about some of the causes in law students (too much competition and too little feedback), lawyers (chronic stress which changes brain chemistry) and judges (loneliness that can contribute to and/or help cause a depressive episode).

There’s another dimension to it, though.  It’s the company we keep.  It’s not just the rough and tumble of fighting with opposing counsel that grinds on lawyers’ mental health.  It can also be more subtle forces . . . like our colleagues.

When we’re depressed, it’s like we’ve jumped out of a plane and are in free fall.  We lose our sense of perspective and hope as we speed towards the ground trying to untangle our chute.

Hanging out with cynical lawyers is like jumping out of that plane after they’ve just handed you an anvil.  This only adds more weight onto the backs of lawyers who may be already struggling to get out from under depression’s shoe. The grousing of other attorneys is unhealthy for a depressive because it only serves to reinforce their pessimistic view of the universe. 

Behind Closed Doors  

Over the years, my door has been a revolving one.  You know there’s trouble when a colleagues enter, give you a conspiratorial glance and silently shut the door behind themselves.  Often – too often – it’s to replay negative experiences they’ve had at work and how unhappy they are.  They’re usually not looking for solutions as much as collusions; confirmation that others don’t like their law jobs either and that everyones common fate in the law is misery.

A lawyer friend of mine, who used to meet me for coffee, would tell me how unhappy he was in his job.  “Most people are assholes in this field,” he would snort.  I’d then tell him about all of the positive experiences I have had — and still enjoyed — with other lawyers.   He looked like he was listening, but he had already tuned out.  It simply didn’t confirm his dreary conclusions about his professional life.  As if he hadn’t heard me, he’d just return to his diatribe about how much being a lawyer sucks.

I sometimes have difficulty saying “no” to people and setting appropriate limits.  Especially, when I sense they’re in trouble like my friend in the above story. But, I finally concluded that I wasn’t helping matters for my friend or myself.  He didn’t want to change his mind or explore options.  And the exchanges only served to bring me down.  I let the friendship go because I needed to set boundaries.  I just couldn’t spend more time with my friend.  I needed to spend time around others who, while they may be in distress, want to change and heal.  Or just hang out with others who enjoyed life and had never been despressed.

Lunchtime

Bitching about the law is common fare when lawyers break bread; a midday break which leaves one with a sort of indigestion of the mind.

These brothers and sisters in arms – those who we toil beside in the legal trenches – are usually good people.  But, that doesn’t change the fact that their inner discontent isn’t good for us.

We tend to hang out with the same people every day for lunch.  We do so because of flat-out inertia or we just don’t know what else to do with ourselves and, well, just drift into it.  I recall the times in my career when I did this too much.  My cadre of complaining colleagues ramped up my stress level to the point where I felt compelled to unload. This becomes a chorus of woe because complaining just breeds more . . . complaining.

In her book The (Un)happy Lawyer: A Roadmap to Finding Meaningful Work Outside of the Law, Monica Parker, a Harvard Law graduate, recommends  ditching your lawyer friends:

“I’m betting a lot of the people you know are lawyers.  How many of them are happy practicing law?  I can count the happy lawyers I know on one hand.  How many of them are successful at finding other opportunities?  Expecting these people to help you make a career change is the proverbial blind leading the blind.  The miserable leading the miserable blind, actually.”

Afterward my lunches, I’d walk back to my office feeling hollow and dispirited.  I kept making resolutions to not join in the negative banter.  When that failed, I just decided I had to begin to break away. This involved setting up a different routine – lunch with non-lawyers, the library, church or catching up of work at Starbucks.  They didn’t know why I had stopped going to lunch.  But, like everything else in life, they got used to it.  If I had to have lunch with them for some work-related problem, I tried to have it with only one person from this group.  It was less overwhelming when dealing with only one person’s negative views on reality and gave me a fighting chance to interject some positive elements in a way I couldn’t with the lunchtime crowd.  If all else failed, I e-mailed or sent memos.

Some Food for Thought 

Pick a person who you admire or who has a career that they like or love.  What do they like about it?  Are there some habits they have which make them happy at work, even small ones, which you can apply to your law career?  

Negativity feeds on itself.  Notice that when you don’t join in the gripe, how it brings down the fervor of your day a notch.  Moreover, when we don’t participate in it, we feel a little lighter than if we had.  Try it and see for yourself.

When we are depressed, we go into a default mode.  We don’t deliberate about going into a dark mood, so much as fall into it.  There are so many triggers that cause depression that we can feel we’re being shot at from all sides.  We commonly succumb.  The time to work our way through this swamp is not when we’re under depression’s spell.  We must prepare beforehand.  Write it out a self-care plan which includes positive people.

One thing that I’ve found particularly helpful is a reminder from my psychologist that we’re always observing ourselves as we behave.  For example, when we work out, we observe ourselves doing something good for our body.  Not participating or setting limits on colleagues dumping their negativity on us makes us feel more in control of our life and positive. This simple approach can dispel the hopelessness that so often accompanies depression. Another why of skinning the cat of depression – which requires more practice than getting to the gym for most of us – is to describe the good parts only when you are talking about situations.  In her book The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques, Margaret Wehrenberg writes:

“Get into the habit of reviewing what went right in any situation – observe what worked out fine despite stumbling blocks along the way.  For people with depression this may take some practice!  You are probably accustomed to instead focusing on what went wrong.  But ignoring what satisfies you can be a trigger to depressed mood. So learn to rate your experiences of what went right rather than on what went wrong.”

Finally, think about joining a depression support group.  While people can and do talk about difficult and sometimes painful things, the emphasis is a constructive one – learning to deal with your law job in a more constructive way so as not to facilitate a depressive episode or getting support in coming out of one.  It’s important to join one because depression can be so isolating.  Being part of a group teaches you that other people understand and truly care about you.   You can find a lawyer support group near you by contacting your state’s Lawyer Assistance Program.  If your community doesn’t have one, or you’d rather not go to a group with other lawyers, check out the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website which has support groups all over the country.

Search out warm hearts and contented others whether in the law or not.  They’re out there.  Your happiness depends on it.

Rumination in the Legal Profession

There’s always a lot going on in my head.

But then again, there’s a lot of racket coming from yours too.

Lawyers think for a living, after all.  There’s always the mental hum of marshaling the evidence, resolving conflicting LexisNexis opinions or assessing the climatic shifts in office politics and how it affects the pecking order.  As advocates, we give a lot of deliberation to turning our analysis into persuasive locution. Lincoln, reflecting on his life as a trial lawyer, wrote, “When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one third thinking about what I want to say.”

For lawyers with depression, there’s another kind of inner buzz.  It’s called rumination.

We might be tempted to think of rumination as a form of worry, a rehashing of all the shit that can go wrong. But, it’s actually not.  Worry focuses on potential bad events in the future.

Rumination, a cousin of fretful forecasting, is similar to worry except it focuses on bad feelings and experiences from the past. 

According to book The Mindful Way through Depression,

“When we ruminate, we become fruitlessly preoccupied with the fact that we are unhappy and with the causes, meanings, and consequences of our unhappiness.  Research has repeatedly shown that if we have tended to react to our sadness or depressed moods in these ways in the past, then we are likely to find the same strategy volunteering to ‘help’ again and again when our moods start to slide.  And it will have the same effect: we’ll get stuck in the very mood from which we are trying to escape.  As a consequence, we are at even higher risk of experiencing repeated bouts of unhappiness.”

In the First Person

I need a lot of time to get going in the morning – slurps of java, (the Starbucks “bold blend” varnish remover if I need a “stiff drink”) time to read the morning news, a sliver of time to plan my day  — and sometimes, ruminate. When ruminating, it’s as if pieces of my past are painted on those little squares of a Rubik’s cube that I’m endlessly manipulating  to solve.

Even though this style of thinking ends up making me feels crummy, in varying degrees, I like to ruminate. It some odd way, it seems to temporarily relieve me of any free-floating anxiety I might be experiencing.

Melissa Kirk writes,

“It feels good to ruminate.  Why is this? Two things happen to me when I’m dwelling on a problem.  The dwelling seems to stop the immediate pain or distress, the way rubbing a sore muscle can relieve the soreness temporarily, until you stop rubbing.  Also, I feel like, when I’m ruminating, that I’m acting on the problem of trying to solve it.  Rumination, then gives us the sense of taking action towards a situation that is distressing us, which relieves the distress in the short-term.”

This type of “mind rub” also skews the facts: I ignore the positive side of those past events and accentuate the negative.  Indeed it is rumination’s focus on the negative that gives it its solution-less quality.

We usually don’t ruminate when we’re happy.  When life is good, we savor everyday plentitudes of grace that have fallen on us whether earned or not.  This type of looking back is really reflection, not rumination.  When we reflect, we appreciate and learn from our past; no need to chomp on the bitter morsels of yesterday.   Interesting aside: the origins of the word “ruminate” come from the Latin word to describe the process in which cows chew and regurgitate their food, or “cud,” over and over again – yummy! 

We chew on our thoughts when we’re upset or in some kind of emotional pain or funk.  Rumination is a way of responding to life that involves repetitively and passively focusing on the symptoms of distress, and on its possible causes and consequences.   This plugs into depression because depression is passive.  We feel scant energy and incapable of taking action when in a melancholic ditch.

According to The Mindful Way through Depression,

“We ruminate because we believe it will help us overcome the unhappiness of depression.  We believe that not doing it will make our condition worse and worse.  We ruminate when we feel low because we believe that it will reveal a way to solve our problems.  But research shows that it does exactly the opposite: our ability to solve problems actually deteriorates markedly during rumination.  All of the evidence seems to point to the stark truth that rumination is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

According to research done by Susan Nolen- Hoeksema, Ph.D., many ruminators negative outlook hurts their problem-solving ability. According to her research, they often struggle to find good solutions to hypothetical problems.  For example, if a friend is avoiding them, they might say, “Well, I guess I’ll just avoid them too.” Even when a person is prone to rumination comes up with a potential solution to a significant problem the rumination itself may induce a level of uncertainty and immobilization that makes it hard for them to move forward. Such depressive rumination most often occurs in women as a reaction to sadness.  Men, by comparison, more often focus on their emotions when they’re angry, rather than sad.

Percolations in the Brain

According to a recent Stanford study by Sian Beilock, Ph.D., changes were discovered in the brains of depression sufferers when ruminating.   MRI’s were taken of two separate groups: those with and those without depression.  Each group was separately prompted with various techniques to promote ruminative thinking. The MRI’s of people’s heads disclosed that a lot is going on in our brains when we are ruminating. 

According to an article in Montior magazine commenting upon Beilock’s work:

“People with major depression had greater activation than controls during the rumination task in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. Thought to be involved in mood regulation, the anterior cingulate cortex may be infusing more emotion into the depressed individual’s ruminations than controls.  Depressed individuals also had greater activation in the amygdala, that almond shaped region deep in the brain that is a major player in negative emotional reactions.  Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, people with depression showed greater activation in the prefrontal cortex, where our working memory (a.k.a. cognitive horsepower) is housed.  If depressed individuals spend a lot more of this neural real estate trying to regulate their thinking, they may have less brain power left over to do other important thinking and reasoning tasks.  This may explain the cognitive deficits depressed folks sometimes show.” 

Unplugging From Rumination

Here are some thoughts about how to deal with rumination.

First, need to learn that rumination doesn’t solve our problems – it insidiously perpetuates them.  “We can’t,” wrote Albert Einstein, “solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  We can’t solve our depression by using the same ruminative thinking habits that may have caused it to begin with.

Second, we need to see why, if it doesn’t work, we keep doing it.  We do so because it tricks us into thinking we are actually being productive and briefly reduces our anxiety.

Third, once we have seen that it doesn’t work and why we keep doing it, we need to make small behavioral steps and resolutions to change it.  Yet, as Dr. O’Connor says, “We aren’t to blame for our depression.   But, we are responsible for getting better.”  Responsibility implies action, not just good intentions.

Depressives often hit a wall in their recovery when asked to change their thinking and/or behavior: they’re either too tired, frozen or can’t get out of their own way.  Often, they are fatalistic:  “The way I see the world is just the way the world is and my life is – screwed up.” They feel that life has dealt them a bad hand and try to solve unsolvable problems:  “What did I do to deserve depression?  Why can’t I ever get things done?”  These thoughts just produce paralysis, not productive solutions.

Of course, there’s an element of truth to many of our ruminations.  If there weren’t so, we wouldn’t endlessly cudgel ourselves over the head because we would quickly see just how silly ruminating really is.  For example, would any of us ruminate about why we didn’t  become a circus clown?  We don’t because there’s not a scintilla of evidence in our past that we ever wanted to be a clown or had the opportunity to do so. 

Rumination is more clever and seductive than that.   The ruminative habit compels us to churn away at half-truths or things that actually did happen.   For example, “why were my parents so screwed up?” Or “why did they leave me a legacy of depression or anxiety?”  There’s truth in these questions.  My parents were screwed up.  My parents did leave me a legacy of depression.

It’s been written that the truth will set us free.  The problem here isn’t with the truth, it’s what we do with it.  Ruminators run with it in a destructive way when they cycle through these issues over and over again with no resolution in sight.  With regard to our parents painful legacy for many of us, is there any answer that would ever satisfy us?

There is tragedy in this world, bad things do happen to good people and life is often unfair.  Yet, as Helen Keller once wrote, “The world is full of suffering.  But, it’s also full of the overcoming of it.” THAT is reality too.  So, when we sit down to eat our daily fare of our thoughts and meanderings that make up our days, we might want to pick from the upbeat side of the menu. 

And not chew on our food too much.

Is It Lawyer Unhappiness or Depression?

Since you get more joy out of giving to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give – Eleanor Roosevelt

There’s a Difference

Is there a difference between discontent and depression, a lack of fulfillment and true melancholia? 

The lines between murky malaise and downright clinical depression are blurred in everyday conversation, the popular media and discourse amongst professionals and academics about what troubles the legal profession.   Two journal articles – which, by the way, I enjoyed immensely, “Stemming the Tide of Law School Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology” and “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession” took this approach by canvasing studies that have been done on law student and lawyer unhappiness, discontent, stress, anxiety, depression and wellness.

But unhappiness is not depression, not even close.  I am not saying that this was the authors’ intentions, or for that matter, even their suggestion.  Nor I am saying that these issues aren’t related to one another.  Yet, I don’t think this lumping-of-the-maladies approach is particularly productive because it plays into the popular myths that depression is just an amplification of everyday sadness or, worse, a banal self-absorption with all that’s wrong in one’s life.  Remarkably, a recent poll showed that 45% of Americans think of depression as a failure of will.

Another problem with the lumping together approach is that sadness and depression call for radically different solutions.  In the two journal articles cited above, the first concentrates on positive psychology and how it can help alleviate distress and the later on living an ethical life and picking the right job — no doubt important considerations for everyone.  Yet I’m not sure that any of these approaches is a panacea to the epidemic of depression in the law.

To me, unhappiness and discontent are part of the human predicament.  It’s unavoidable that all of us will go through epochs in our lives when things unequivocally stink; we mope and wonder why meteorites always seem to pelt us when our car battery’s dead, our kids are in an uproar and the day at the office was survivable at best.  In the book Zorba the Greek, the larger than life Zorba was asked if he was married and replied with great gusto, “Me? Wife, kids, job — the full catastrophe!!”

But depression isn’t part of the human condition.  It’s a multifaceted illness, for some disabling and for many cruel. For many of its victims, the pain isn’t so much a feeling of sadness, but of nothingness.  There’s no air to breath, little room to escape this type of pain – until one, hopefully, gets treatment or it passes, mercifully, of its own inscrutable violation.  

How can nothingness be painful? Perhaps, it’s because it’s emotions that give life its vibrancy. These visceral forces energize us, heighten the intensity of our lives and make the human experience so rich.  The absence of this life force leaves us impoverished, longing and mourning for that richness in our being we once knew.

Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, herself a depressive, captured this experience when she wrote:

“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be soon,” but you know you won’t.”

At least when the problem is one of discontent, we have our faculties (e.g. the ability to concentrate), are capable of making choices and bring focused energy to bear on changing matters in small or large ways.  For someone in the throes of depression, the power to choose is diminished if not extinguished.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., in his seminal book Undoing Depression, writes in his blog:

“Everyone knows what depression feels like.  Everyone feels the blues at times.  Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life.  There is a connection between the blues and clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”

No, depression isn’t unhappiness.  But discontent in one’s vocation is a real problem and often very painful.  We feel like a jammed door that won’t let us open into a life that works on some fundamental level.  We know something is wrong, sense that we’re stuck like in the traffic of our lives.  Our happiness is trying to tell us something and we know it.  Our emotional core senses we’ve been living a life out of sync with who we really are.  And if we’re in the legal profession, we’re not alone in this experience – far, far from it. 

Drifting Towards Unhappiness in the Law

There has been much debate about whether lawyers are really unhappy, to what degree, why that is so and what can be done about it. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Gretchen Rubin, a Yale Law School alumnus who clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, about her book “The Happiness Project.”  Here’s her take on why so many lawyers find themselves in funks:

“There’s [this] whole notion of ‘drift’ that I think a lot of people fall into with law school.  They’d don’t decide, necessarily, to go to law school, but they drift into it, really for a lack of a better idea.  And that’s one of the reasons so many lawyers are unhappy.  They hear these lines that, on their face, seem to make sense: ‘It can’t hurt to take the LSAT.’ ‘I can always go to law school.’ ‘I can always change my mind later.’ That’s what happened to me.  I drifted into it.”

Gretchen realized that she had never made any real choice about whether to go to law school, let alone join the legal profession.  Yet, how many lawyers really chose their jobs? Most of us stumble around. There is a steep learning curve to life and there are few instruction manuals.  It’s often through trial and error that most people find their way.  The discovery that you’ve invested lots of time and money into a career that you later find was a bad fit is troubling indeed.  Many aren’t willing or able to make the leap to change matters; hence, unhappiness and distress. 

Perhaps the notion of happiness depends on how long you’ve been in the profession.  Recently minted lawyers seem to expect something more from their jobs than their predecessors.  The New York Times article The Falling Down Professions notes:

“Especially among young people, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, concepts alien to seemingly everyone but art students even a generation ago. ‘There used to be this idea of having a separate work self and home self,’ notes Richard Florida, the author “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it is Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.”  ‘Now they just want to be themselves.  It’s almost as if they are interviewing places to see if they fit them.”

In a sense, it’s amazing that young lawyers are even taking into consideration flexibility and creativity; all the more so given the sour economy and the glut of law school graduates — currently about 150,000 per year.  But an increasing number of young lawyers seem willing to seek a job fit that jives with their desire for not only a decent paycheck, but a decent life.   Many middle-aged or older lawyers eventually get there, but often after a lot of struggle and pain.  Some switch jobs to find a better fit (the litigator who starts a real estate practice) or others chuck the whole profession and start life anew in other fields.

In the new book “The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law,” the authors point out that six experiences that are critical to making a person satisfied with her life, including security, autonomy, authenticity, relatedness, competence, and self-esteem.  Certainly, money can and should be part of the equation, but not to the exclusion of other intrinsic values. 

There’s nothing new here, but don’t we all need to be reminded of this message over and over again?  At the very least, it’s a counterweight to the popular and legal culture which puts way too much emphasis on money and deludes us into thinking that more of it will mean greater happiness.

According to psychology expert and lawyer Dan Bowling, “Common sense, though, would suggest that the happiest lawyers are those who feel they are really good at law practice, who deal with clients and can see results of their work, or who have a sense that they are involved in a greater cause. Another question about the research, he say, ‘and I think it’s a fair question is this one. ‘It’s the so-what question.  It is: Whoever said law is supposed to be easy? Law is a career sacrifice for clients. . . . Who said we’re supposed to be happy?’ Bowling has an answer: ‘I think the law can be a jealous mistress, but I also think she can be kind, too,” he says.

A contrary view is offered in “Scholars Debate: Is Law a Picnic?” by Harvard Law Professor David B. Wilkins who reports that in a study of 4000 lawyers in the first decade of their careers:  “. . . contrary to what many believe, there is ‘no evidence’ of ‘any pervasive unhappiness in the profession,’ he says – at least not among those who began practicing in 2000. In that group, nearly three-quarters reported being ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs.

Perhaps happiness is somewhat determined by the type of law we go into.  In The Happy Lawyer, the authors note that those who work for government, in a small firm, or in a solo practice, as well as those attorneys who work aligns with their values, are more likely to be satisfied with their careers.

In “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession,” Patrick Schlitz writes:

“This is the best advice I can give you: Right now, while you are still in law school, make the commitment—not just in your head, but in your heart—that, although you are willing to work hard and you would like to make a comfortable living, you are not going to let money dominate your life to the exclusion of all else. And don’t just structure your life around this negative; embrace a positive. Believe in something—care about something—so that when the culture of greed presses in on you from all sides, there will be something inside of you pushing back. Make the decision now that you will be the one who defines success for you—not your classmates, not big law firms, not clients of big law firms, not the National Law Journal. You will be a happier, healthier, and more ethical attorney as a result.”

We each have to take our own journey in life to find out what makes us happy.  Just don’t get stuck in negative rumination about what’s wrong in your life.  Think about what could be “right” in your life.  Believe, at the very least, in the possibilities and follow your passion.  Make no mistake about it, there will be a cost.  If one follows one’s passion there may be risk, the displeasure of our peers and family members and financial concerns.  But if one doesn’t take this journey, if money carries too much weight in what we’re willing to do to make a living, we will be unhappy; if this situation goes on to long, maybe depressed.

Further reading:

Chicken Little: Lawyer at Law” by Stephanie West Allen

The New York Times Dissects Lawyer Unhappiness with a Note on Following Your Dreams” by Victoria Pynchon

 

 

Is Lack of Life Meaning Your Depression Trigger?

 As a new year approaches or gets under way, many people ponder the meaning of their lives, and whether they are where they want to be. Depressed people, though, often avoid this pondering, because it brings up some really uncomfortable issues they are frankly not sure they can deal with.

For depressed lawyers, the stakes can seem very high indeed, if they suspect (or know) that their daily work and life has little meaning for them. The idea of a career change or life change can be deeply frightening, and act like a trigger or a multiplier to an existing depression.

Meaning is one of those things that depressed people usually feel they lack in their lives. “Feelings of worthlessness” is always on those checklists of depression symptoms. A life that feels meaningless, feels worthless. And while that feeling of a meaningless, worthless life is often the illusion that depression projects, with many lawyers, there’s some hard, cold reality behind it. The objective, logical, detached thinking that law demands often silences that need many of us have for meaning in our work and lives. Meaning lives in our emotions, not our logic.

What Meaningful Looks Like

Exactly what is meaningful differs for each person. Some of my clients find work more meaningful when they are out in the field working directly with clients or witnesses, rather than in the office enduring conference calls. Others find meaning by communicating an important message well in a brief. Many lawyers enjoy and find meaning in helping a client achieve a goal that feels worthy to them—keeping a client out of jail, helping an entrepreneur avoid a regulatory quagmire that would have doomed a really super business idea, or vindicating a client whose intellectual property was stolen by a competitor.

If your work doesn’t carry some inherent meaning for you, that lack can be the trigger for depression, rather than the symptom of it. If your work actually violates your values—those things that have the most meaning for you—it’s almost sure to send you into a funk eventually. I see that with my clients consistently. They are unhappy, or depressed, because their work lacks meaning for them.

If there exist pieces of a depressed lawyer’s life that hold meaning for them, that’s a relatively easy fix—find ways to increase the size of those pieces in their work or life. A lawyer who finds meaning in helping the underdog can add some pro bono work. Someone who values interacting and collaborating with people can volunteer to do training or mentoring. (The list of people who need mentoring is endless—less experienced lawyers, homeless or economically disadvantaged people who need basic job searching skills, at-risk youth, and college students trying to find their niche are just a few ideas.) Sometimes simply cutting back on hours and spending time with family and friends will add meaning.

Many times, though, it’s the work itself that lacks meaning, no matter how the unhappy lawyer slices it or tries to re-arrange his or her work life. Particularly when that lawyer is ignoring her or his creative side, routine legal work will never have enough meaning to combat unhappiness or depression.

Ignore Those Creative Urges at Your Peril

All humans are born with a great capacity for some type of creative work, whether that be problem-solving, developing innovative products or approaches to business, or some type of self-expression such as writing, painting or performance. We tend to see creativity as the making of art, but it’s much more than that. It’s seeing old problems with a new set of eyes, of wondering “what if we tried doing it this different way . . .? What could make this better . . . ?”

Law, in contrast, values applying the same old solutions to new problems. That’s the DNA of law. For those with a creative bent, that DNA can feel like a death knell to meaning in their lives.

Lawyers whose creative gifts are centered around problem-solving will find it easier to add meaning to their work life in law, but lawyers whose creative gifts revolves around self-expression or making new things will have a hard slog of it. The greater your creative gifts, the harder it is to endure work without creative meaning. Your soul protests vehemently and doesn’t really care about what society thinks about stable, large paychecks.

What does that vehement protest look like? Often, depression. I don’t for a moment think that every depressed lawyer is a blocked creative—but many are, if my clients are any indication. Once they start getting in touch with that creativity, their lives go from stuck to moving. When they start adding that thing that has deep meaning for them—creating in some form—their depression often lifts or lessens markedly.

The hardest thing, as anyone who suffers from depression knows, is getting started. So start small. Add meaning in tablespoons, and suddenly you will find it in your life by the gallon.

Here are a few ways you could start to add meaning to your life:

If you find meaning in problem-solving, get some Legos and figure out how to build a tree, a piano or whatever appeals to you. (Legos, incidentally, are now way cool. There are Harry Potter and Star War Legos sets, among many other brilliant ones. You could start with a kit and go from there.)

If you find meaning in beauty, add some to your life. Put some art on the walls, or find a lovely object you can put on your desk or a bookshelf you look at daily. You could even get some pretty paper and craft some origami. A pretty scarf or unusual tie could add a big lift to your life. Even colorful or unusual office supplies can boost to your creative spirit.

If making something new holds meaning for you, get some polymer clay, sold as Sculpey or Fimo, and comes in a cacophony of colors plus metallic and glittery version, and make a coaster. Or make some worry beads; or whatever else appeals. If you can’t seem to create something for yourself, then do it for a child. Children love presents, period, and they’ll love that you made something just for them.

If kindness and compassion top the meaning scale for you, start slipping a few dollars to a homeless person regularly. Or volunteer monthly at a soup kitchen. Or make it a practice to smile and greet people who look like they’re having a bad day.

Adding meaning to your life can be a lot cheaper than therapy and medication, and have some profound effects. Living a meaningful life can be a powerful part of your arsenal in fighting depression. And the downside? I can’t think of one.

This is a guest blog by Jennifer Alvey.  Jennifer is a recovering lawyer and a professional life and career coach, as well as a published writer. She graduated from Duke Law School, where she served on the Duke Law Journal as Articles Editor. Following law school, Jennifer clerked for a federal appeals court and then moved into private practice with a large Washington, D.C. law firm. While at law firm #3, Jennifer began developing her creative talents, and left law to pursue one of her passions, writing. In 2007 she started a blog Leaving the Law.

Stressed and Depressed Guys in Blue Suits

Beneath the body armor of their pin-striped suits, male lawyers carry a terrible burden. Corrosive levels of stress bombard them and they’re expected to pony up and take it by fellow lawyers and judges — and themselves. There is a serious disconnect between the conversations going on inside their heads about how they really feel about their inner turmoil and the ways they present themselves to their busy world as competent, confident and glacial under pressure.

Studies show that lawyers suffer from elevated rates of stress and depression —  more than double the rates found in the general population. There are some physiological and psychological clues as to why this is so for men in the legal profession.

A new study finds that stressed men have diminished activity in brain regions responsible for understanding other’s feelings.  The study concludes that under stress, men tend to withdraw socially while women seek emotional support.  Recently, I was preparing for a trial scheduled to go on a Monday.   I had worked hard the whole weekend and was cranky and exhausted.  Sunday afternoon, my wife asked if I felt okay and whether I was stressed.  I shrugged off her question and said that I really didn’t want to talk about it. 

Yet in times when my wife is stressed, she turns to me for support and encouragement – and she’s a lawyer too.  As a man in the legal profession, I expect myself to just bear it and soldier on through the mud of litigation.  If you can’t take it, you can’t cut it goes the mindset in the legal culture.  As if there were no middle ground, no way to express this sense of free-floating anxiety.  As if it was all that simple.

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s ABA Journal, “Lawyers under Stress are Critical, Cautious and Distant, Personality Test Shows.” The tests, administered to 1800 lawyers at big firms, were conducted in collaboration with Hogan Assessment Systems, found that, on average, the lawyers:

• Generally do not seem to have a strong need for public recognition, although there is a subset of lawyers who seem to crave recognition and notoriety.

• Tend to deal with others in a direct and matter-of-fact way, but may come across as cold, critical and argumentative.

• Tend to be self-critical and temperamental but are also self-aware, open to feedback, and emotionally expressive.

• Are most attracted to environments that emphasize quality and are less commercially focused than professionals in other industries.

• Tend to value education and educational activities.

While these stress-related problems don’t necessarily cause male depression, they are additional risk factors for those are predisposed to it.

Terrence Real, author of the book “I Don’t Want to Talk about It,” makes an important point about how men deal with their melancholy: for every male who discloses his depression and gets treatment, there are four others who are able to hide it and won’t get help. He writes:

“Covert male depression has three main domains: self-medication, isolation and lashing out. Self-medication may be drinking, drugging, womanizing and even watching excessive amounts of television. Some forms of self-medication are tolerated by our culture so it is hard to get across that what these men are doing is stabilizing depression.

A covertly depressed man will isolate himself and withdraw from intimacy with his partner, his kids, his friends. He can’t afford to be intimate with others because he is desperately trying not to be intimate with himself.

Lashing out can mean violence and domestic abuse. Untreated depression may be an integral part of many male batterers.”

Men drive their pain deeper into the well of their being to avoid dealing with it, to avoid facing the fact that they feel overburdened and, perhaps, afraid.  Alone at the bottom, there is darkness with no ladder out.  Many of them will need an escape rope dropped into them by other caring people, if they are lucky to have such people in their lives.  They feel odd and alone; like they are the only man alive with this problem.

In fact, depression is a secret pain at the core of many men’s lives, and one that goes largely undiagnosed and untreated. Watch the trailer of the recent documentary “Men Get Depression” which aired on PBS:

What Men Can Do About Stress

Check out this stress blog by therapist, Elizabeth Scott.

We all know exercise is important to controlling our stress levels. The problem isn’t that we don’t know that. The problem is that we don’t do it.  Hook up with a trainer at your local gym.  It’s is a relatively cheap way to motivate you to exercise. It also makes you accountable to someone and it’s painful to the pocketbook if you blow it off – must trainers charge you for no-shows! Here’s a great blog about managing stress with exercise and a good diet from a personal trainer.  Also check out the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain which has three great sections about stress, anxiety and depression and what happens to the human body when we work out. I do use a trainer and it has had a dramatic impact on stress loads I carry.

For a quick fix, check this web article “Eight Immediate Stress-Busters.”

Read an article I wrote for lawyers in December, 2008 edition of Trial Magazine, “The Connection between Stress, Anxiety and Depression.” It is a companion to Dr. Andrew Benjamn’s wise advice, “Reclaim Your Life, Reclaim Your Practice.”

What Men Can Do About Depression

Read Terrence Real’s book because it’s important for all of us to learn about depression from a male perspective.  Also check out the website Mid-Life Men which offers stories from guys about their depression experiences.

Have your wife read Is He Depressed or What? Many women ask themselves this question every day wondering whether their husband or boyfriend’s short temper, tendency to withdraw, and mysterious physical complaints might be indications of some deeper psychological issue. The book offers an overview of the ways men typically express signs of depression. It provides strategies they can use for improving communication, dealing with relationship complications, and coping with men’s physical symptoms related to depression, such as insomnia and sexual dysfunction.

Above all, the book helps your spouse avoid becoming lost in your depression. By paying attention to their own needs, they can best preserve their well-being and peace of mind—and so are able to offer the most support to you.  I often suggest that men buy this book for their wives rather than ask their wives to go out and buy it.  This demonstrates that you are in this together, that you care about her feelings and that you want her to understand.

Get help.  Therapy is not scary and you don’t have to go it alone. Therapy will help you to feel better by having someone to talk with.  Check out this article where a therapist answers seven questions about how therapy works and what to expect. It is something productive you can do about your stress, anxiety and depression and it can help you to develop some better coping skills.  If you are concerned about being seen, many therapists have early morning or late evening hours. You also tell them that you have a concern about being seen by fellow attorneys or judges and request that he or she not schedule you at a time when that therapist may be treating someone you don’t want to see.

Men, you can’t handle exorbitant levels of stress and depression on your own.  It’s not shameful to get help.

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