Lawyer Depression: What is it, What Causes it, and What You Can Do About it

Are you a lawyer suffering from depression?  Do you know a colleague that struggles with it?

If so, you’re not alone.

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A new landmark study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs published this February reveals that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys currently qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of clinical depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. Forty-six percent (46%) reported concerns with depression at some point in their legal careers.

When put in perspective, that means that of the 1.2 million lawyers in the U.S., 336,000 lawyers have struggled with some form of depression this past year. A staggering number when one considers the rate of depression in the general population is ten-percent.

WHAT IS DEPRESSION?

Depression can be mild, moderate or severe in intensity. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms include:

Whether or not you’re clinically depressed can only be determined by a mental health professional. To be so deemed, you must have at least five of the above symptoms for at least two weeks.

But many people never get to the point of receiving such an evaluation or treatment because they or others see their symptoms as a “slump,” “sadness,” or even burnout. Perhaps a vacation will cure the blues, some say. Others take the tough love approach and tell the depressed lawyer to “snap out of it.”  But none of this works.

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That’s because depression isn’t sadness. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., author of the best-selling book, Undoing Depression, writes:

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality – the ability to experience a full range of emotions, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief. Depression is not an emotion itself; it’s the loss of feelings; a big heavy blanket that insulates you from the world yet hurts at the same time. It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness.

WHAT CAUSES DEPRESSION?

Depression has many causes:  A genetic history of depression in one’s family, hormone imbalances, and biological differences, among others. Certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem, a pessimistic outlook, chronic stress at work or home, childhood trauma, drug or alcohol abuse and other risk factors increase the likelihood of developing or triggering depression.

Why do lawyers experience depression at higher rates?

According to Patrick Krill, J.D., LLM., director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Legal Professionals Program, just why lawyers have such sky-high rates of melancholy isn’t always easy to see:

(The) rampant and multidimensional stress of the profession is certainly a factor. And not surprisingly, there are also some personality traits common among lawyers – self-reliance, ambition, perfectionism and competitiveness – that aren’t always consistent with healthy coping skills and the type of emotional elasticity necessary to endure the unrelenting pressures and unexpected disappointments that a career in the law can bring.

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According to Martin Seligman, Ph.D., it has to do with negative thinking:

One factor is a pessimistic outlook defined not in the colloquial sense (seeing the glass as half empty) but rather as the pessimistic explanatory style. These pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events as stable and global factors (“It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything.”) The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable while the optimist sees them as local, temporary and changeable. Pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavors.

But there is one glaring exception: Pessimists do better at law. Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudent. 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, then 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.

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Tyger Latham, Ph.D., a psychologist in Washington, D.C., who treats many lawyers with depression, writes:

. . . I’ve come to recognize some common characteristics amongst those in the profession.  Most, from my experience, tend to be “Type A’s” (i.e., highly ambitious and over-achieving individuals). They also have a tendency toward perfectionism, not just in their professional pursuits but in nearly every aspect of their lives.  While this characteristic is not unique to the legal profession – nor is it necessarily a bad thing – when rigidly applied, it can be problematic. The propensity of many law students and attorneys to be perfectionistic can sometimes impede their ability to be flexible and accommodating, qualities that are important in so many non-legal domains.

WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT?

1. Join a Depression Support Group

You can (a) join or (b) start a support group in your community. These groups provide a place for the depressed to share their struggles and gain the encouragement and support they need to recover and remain well.

(a) Join a Group

A depression support group is not “group therapy”. The group is run by those who attend the meetings. To see if there’s a lawyer group in your community, go to the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs’ website to find such information. To see if there’s such a group in your city that isn’t lawyer specific, go to the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance’s website at www.dbsa.org.

(b) Start a depression support group for lawyers in your legal community.

If there’s not one in your hometown or the ones’ you’ve attended aren’t a good fit, think about starting one yourself or with another friend or two.

Read my previous post, “18 Tips on How To Start a Depression Support Group“.

2. Get Educated

There are plenty of great websites to educate you about what depression is and the variety of ways it can be treated.  A great resource can be found at the University of Michigan’s Depression Center website at www.depressioncenter.org.

Also, read my previous post, “Dan’s Top 10 Depression Books“.

3. Work with a Lawyer Life Coach

If you would wish to work one-on-one with a life coach, I offer such services at  www.yourdepressioncoach.comMy practice is unique in that I am a fellow lawyer who has struggled with depression over the years while practicing law. I believe I can help you if you answer “yes” to any of the following questions:

  • You need someone to listen with a sense of compassion.  I am that person. I will care.  I will be in your corner.
  • You need a sense of structure at a time when life may seem pointless and meaningless. I can be an anchor for you, a safe port in a storm, a place to go and share your deepest struggles and concerns about home and work.
  • You need someone to educate you about what depression and anxiety are and their symptoms and causes.
  • You need guidance as you weave through the matrix of treatment options to find a plan that works for you.
  • In addition to treating with a psychologist and/or psychiatrist, you find that you get more encouragement, insight, and support to help you keep moving forward.
  • You suffer from anxiety and depression.  If so, you’re far from alone.  Studies show that as much as 60% of all people with depression also suffer from an anxiety disorder.

I will work with you on whatever specific problem most pressing to you.  Here are some areas where depression and anxiety may be causing real pain and trouble in your life:

You need help getting things done at work.  You’re falling behind and because of you’re the depression and/or anxiety. I can help by providing insight, support, and exercises to help you deal with this all too common and critical issue.

You want to leave your job.  You’ve been coping with work-related depression and/or anxiety for some time and decided “enough is enough”. You want to make plans to transition to another job or career. I can help you develop your game plan to do so and hold you accountable for following through and take the necessary steps to make this a reality.

You’re a “Depression Veteran”. You might be further down the road in your recovery from depression and/or anxiety but still need help and encouragement. Or you’ve been struggling with off-and-on depression and/or anxiety for years. I will work with you to develop a program to make sure you do things that will help you recover and stay well. I will hold you accountable for actually following through with your program.  I can help to motivate you to stick with a healthy game plan.

You are just plain unhappy.  Many people, while not clinically depressed, are very unhappy with their lives.  They have too much stress.  Aren’t happy in their careers. Or don’t have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. The support and structure I provide for depression sufferers are easily transferable to getting to the heart of what’s causing your unhappiness.  I will work with you to build a different set of skills and make different life choices to lead a happier and healthier life.

You need help explaining your depression to others.  For loved ones and business associates that have never been through depression, it’s difficult for them to really understand your pain because they really don’t have a point of reference for psychic pain someone undergoes with clinical depression.  They mistake it for “the blues” or everyday sadness, which it clearly is not.  I can work with you to develop a language and actions that could help others understand.  If you wish, I would also be happy to talk with others as your work to educate them about what depression is and ways that might be able to help and support you.

If you relate to any of these issues and think coaching might be a good fit for you, I offer a free twenty-minute consultation.  You can contact me at www.yourdepressioncoach.com to schedule a meeting. I coach clients around the country via Skype and over the phone.

Copyright, 2016 by Daniel T. Lukasik, Esq.

 

 

 

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1 thought on “Lawyer Depression: What is it, What Causes it, and What You Can Do About it

  1. Thank you for this very cogent article about depression within the legal profession. Interestingly, another area where pessimism is helpful is in the arts. To be successful in a creative field you need to be skeptical and discerning as you work. Optimism can lead you to overly appreciate your work before you’ve really achieved something that can resonate with others. Studies have shown that those who see things in negative ways are often more intelligent than their optimistic counterparts and, indeed, more realistic. Good news for us glass half empty types. But as you say, such an approach to life, while being highly adaptive to some work, may be less adaptive when it comes to leading a happy and fulfilled life. I’m a psychoanalyst who works primarily with those in high pressure, that is to say, high risk professions, such as lawyers, doctors, law enforcement personnel and educators. Psychoanalysis is an evidence-based method for helping with depression and other life difficulties. In this method two people talk. Talking to a well trained empathic listener can bring relief right away, and increasingly in the long term. Neuroscience has shown that a conversation can actually change the structure of the brain. Over time talking changes neuronal pathways which leads to chemical changes and to actual brain changes. One of the little known facts about psychoanalysis as a method of psychotherapy, is that its practitioners are required to undergo their own psychoanalysis before they are licensed and allowed to provide psychoanalysis for another. This is the only mental health profession with such an important requirement. Psychoanalysis has been shown to ease the anguish of fear, escalating aggression, addictions or a sense of isolation as it ameliorates self-defeating thoughts or behaviors enduringly over time. For more information about psychoanalysis visit The Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies at https://www.cmps.edu. Or visit my website.

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