Lawyers Helping Lawyers: How to Start a Depression Support Group in Your Bar Community

I started a lawyer depression support group ten years ago. It’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done. We started out with ten people.  It met once a month. Over time, it evolved into every other week.  We now gather once a week.  I’ve been asked many times about how to start a group.  Here are a few pointers to help you get going. They’re in no particular order of importance.

  1.   Be clear about what a support group is

A peer support group is a regular gathering of folks suffering from depression who share their struggles with fellow sufferers to gain insight, strength and hope. These meetings are less structured and more open-ended and the content doesn’t come from a mental health professional. In contrast, group therapy is more structured, focused on teaching, and has a clear outcome that the group is trying to reach. They’re led by a therapist. Since about 60% percent of those with depression also struggle with anxiety, it is likely that members will like to discuss both issues amongst themselves.

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.

 

 

 

18 Tips on How to Start a Depression Support Group

I started a depression support group seven years ago. It’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done. We started out with ten people.  It met once a month. Over time, it evolved into every-other week.  We now gather once a week.  I’ve been asked many times about how to start a depression support group.  Here are a few pointers to help you get going. They’re in no particular order of importance.

1.   Be clear about what a support group is

A support group is a regular gathering of folks suffering from depression who share their struggles with fellow sufferers to gain insight, strength and hope. These meetings are less structured and more open-ended and the content doesn’t come from a mental health professional. In constrast, group therapy is more structured, focused on teaching, and has a clear outcome that the group is trying to reach. They’re led by a therapist.

2.   Picking a place

I suggest you seek out a place to meet at a school, college, church, community center, library or other free space in your community.  I guess you could have it in your home.  I have never done that. I don’t know anyone else who has.  In my view, the problem with this spot is that you must be prepared to have it there every single time. It may put a lot of responsibility on you. What happens if you’re sick or on vacation and can’t host the gathering?  I also don’t suggest rotating the location of the meetings to different members’ homes.  This doesn’t work because it becomes just too complicated for people to remember where the meeting is being held.  Pick one place and stick with it.

3.   Determine a schedule

With the help of initial support-group members, decide how often to meet and for how long. For example, every two weeks for 60 to 90 minutes.  My experience has been not to fiddle with the day and time you ultimately pick. Members in my group know, come hell or high water, meetings start at 12:30 sharp and end at 1:30 every single Friday.  They need not think about it.  If they miss some meetings, they’re not left hanging about when the next meeting is.

If others tend to come late to the meeting, always start it on time anyways.  My experience is that people appreciate this.  Everyone has busy schedules and other things to do.   Meetings should be no less than once every two weeks because interest can wane if the group doesn’t meet often. If the meetings are too far apart, people forget each other’s stories.

4.   Talk with your therapist

If you’re in therapy, talk with him or her about what you plan on doing and why.  They know you well and can offer some suggestions. They’ve either run groups and/or been trained in how to do so.  Get some ideas. 

5.   You don’t have to rebuild the wheel

Depression support groups happen everyday around the country. They’re run by various organizations such as the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.  Check out their website to see where these groups meet in your community and go to a few to see how they function.  

6.   How Do I Find Support Group Members

You need to get the word out. Develop a flyer that briefly describes your group, where and when it meets, and contact information. You may also want to contact other support groups and ask if they can refer people to you or market your group on Facebook and other social networking sites.   One thing I did was to write columns in my local paper about my own experiences with depression and the support group.  This helped enormously.  People connect with personal stories.  It also helps people overcome the stigma of attending a meeting.  If you’re comfortable with it, ask to speak at your local church or other social organizations you might be a part of.   Another way to find members is to search for therapists who have offices within a 10-mile radius of where the meetings are going to be held.  I’d send them flyers so that could refer people in need of support. Most therapists aren’t even aware of such groups. So educate them!

7.   Have and opening and closing ritual

Early on, our group crafted an opening that we read before every meeting. I have typed out the opening we use at my group at the end of this blog. Towards the end of the meeting, I will say, “We’ve got about ten minutes left, is there anyone who hasn’t shared that would like to speak?”  I’ll then conclude, “See you all next Friday at 1:30.” A consistent structure to the meetings helps a lot.

8.   Arrange for refreshments.

Ask support-group members to take turns providing snacks and drinks if desired.

9.   Create a confidential list-serve

It’s a good idea to get everyone’s email address to communicate with the group in the event of a meeting cancellation due to the weather or other problems. Sometimes, your usual location needs to be changed on a particular date because the building is closed for the holidays, etcetera.  Send out an e-mail the day before the group meets to remind them there’s a gather the next day.  People get busy and like these little pokes. I also forward onto members of group activities – sometimes we meet for dinner or breakfast.  I also pass along depression blogs or news I’ve come across that might be interest.  A confidential list-serve is easy to create.  Check out this webpage about how to create a list-serve through Goggle.  This is what I use.  To make it confidential, I e-mail myself notices and blind copy the rest of the group.   It works. 

10.   Leaders

A support group leader(s) is responsible for maintaining the structure of the group and keeping the group on topic. Leaders also set up meetings and clean up afterwards. They must be a bit assertive; if you are not comfortable being assertive, look for this quality in a co-leader.

11.   Asking others to join the group – be sensitive to their concerns

Because of the stigma associated with depression, people are sometimes resistant to join a support group. They don’t know what to expect.  “Will other people attending the group know me?  Will this be embarrassing? Would this really help?”  Then there are others who have attended other depression support group meetings and found them lacking.  One of the most common things I hear is that many of the folks who attend these meeting aren’t working, are on disability and aren’t planning to go back into the work force.  Let me be clear on this point: in no way am I criticizing people who are in this situation.  In fact, I feel deep compassion for them.  But for people who are in the workforce or those temporarily out of it who want to get back in, it isn’t always good fit.  Be aware and sensitive to this issue. If I sense that people would like to come to the group, but are apprehensive, I meet them for coffee.  Believe me, it helps to reassure them. Maybe a perspective member might not be a good fit for your group. If so, be honest with them and refer them to another.

12.   Remember that it takes time to start and keep a group going

I have known other people who have felt the passion and courage to start groups only to see them fizzle out because of a lack of members or organization.  That can be discouraging, no doubt.  When I first started the group, I’d worry about how many people would come.  For example, I’d be disappointed if 4 people came.  I somehow felt like a failure (why can’t I get more people to come?) or a big success if 15 came (“Wow, this is great.  People think this is important!”) But in the past seven years of running my group, I learned that numbers don’t count for much. It’s the quality and depth of sharing that counts.  Some of the best meetings I’ve attended have been with small numbers of people.  It allows more time for each person to share more details of their struggles that they otherwise may not been able to do in with a larger group setting because of time constraints.  Commit to keep the group going for at least one year.  It will have its ups and downs.  You need to be persistent. 

13.   Remember to stay on topic.

You’ll notice some participants drift into other topics like buying a new car, gossip or recent things in the news.  Help keep the group focused and on task.  It’s a depression support group, plain and simple.  The majority of people are there for that reason.  It’s simply not fair to others who need the support to listen to others who want to talk about things other than their depression-related issues.  If people want to talk about these issues, they can do so before or after the group.

14.   Be careful not to let someone dominate the talk

This is a common and tricky problem I’ve had to deal with over the years.  We address this in the opening ritual, but people need to be reminded of this for the benefit of the group.  An individual member may sometimes need a bit more time to talk than usual.  That’s okay. But if it becomes a chronic issue, take the person aside after the group and gently address it with them.

15.   Share resources

Many people who come to groups have read books about depression that have “spoken” to them in a meaningful way.  I’ve shared my own favorites in a blog, Dan’s Top Ten Depression Books.  Group members can also create such a list and distribute it.  From time to time, my group has also come up with a list of recommended therapists and psychiatrists in our area.  Again, a very helpful thing for people who don’t have one or are thinking of switching (a very common issue).

16.   Hire a therapist to attend the group

Our group has hired a therapist to facilitate our meetings during different times in our history.  It’s absolutely not necessary to have successful group, but may be helpful.  How to find one?  Send out a letter to local counselors that you’re group is looking for one.  How do you pay for it?  Take up a collection from the group.  For example, if you have 10 people (an ideal number of members for a support group, by the way, is 8 to 10 folks), ask that they each kick in $10 per group meeting to pay for the therapist.  The psychologist in our group didn’t talk much during the meeting, except at the end.  He would sum up some of the themes he heard and offer a few helpful tips and observations.  I thought this worked well and was a real benefit to the group. You can also ask a local therapist to volunteer their time to this worthy effort.

17.   Get trained as a peer support person.

There are different organizations that offer such training.  Check out DBSA. Attend other depression support groups in your community to see how they run it.

18.   Commit to confidentiality.

Make sure everyone in your group understands that what’s shared in the support group stays within the group. I can’t stress this issue strongly enough.  People need to feel safe.  Without that, the group just won’t succeed.

Ritual Opening for a depression support group

Welcome to the {insert group name] support group for people coping with depression.

Depression is a bio-psychosocial phenomenon meaning that it affects people in their biological, psychological, and social areas of daily function. Depression is a health problem that does not discriminate by gender, race, religion, occupation, or intellectual ability. It is not a moral weakness any more than asthma, diabetes, or hypertension are. But, similar to these other illnesses, depression is highly treatable and can be managed effectively. Interpersonal support is an important part of depression management.

This group is anonymous and confidential. Here is a forum to share your stresses and your experiences in coping with depression. We ask that group members suspend judgment of others, refrain from direct advice giving, and allow adequate time for all participants to share their respective stories.

 We seek the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Have you ever taken part in a depression support group?  What have your experiences been?  Do you have any additions to this list that would help someone form a group?  Please share.

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