One Trial Lawyer’s Tale: What Happens When Law Firms Don’t Talk About Mental Illness

The following blog was submitted by an anonymous lawyer.

Once upon a time, I was a trial attorney at a personal injury defense firm. I was good at it.  I always pushed hard; always did the best job possible.  I won a good share of cases, and, of course, lost a few as well.  I was valued highly enough to be made a partner shortly after joining the firm.

But I had a dirty little secret.  I had bipolar disorder, which was well-controlled through a close partnership with a good psychiatrist.  Still, in my mind, if word ever got out, my employers would see me as weak, a liability.  To a degree, I understood.  If the insurance companies that paid the bills learned that one of the firm’s trial attorneys had such a condition, their mandate would be clear: if you want our business, get rid of him. That is what I assumed.

Throughout my career, colleagues would make offhanded remarks about someone “not taking his medication.” I would grit my teeth and ignore it.

10 Summer Depression Busters

Although my mood seems to be better with more sun, I understand why a substantial number of folks get more depressed in the summer. Extreme heat is hard to tolerate. In fact, in a study published in Science in 2013, researchers reported that as temperatures rose, the frequency of interpersonal violence increased by 4 percent, and intergroup conflicts by 14 percent.

There are four distinct types of people when it comes to weather and mood, according to a study published in Emotion in 2011.

  • Summer Lovers (better mood with warmer and sunnier weather)
  • Unaffected (weak associations between weather and mood)
  • Summer Haters (worse mood with warmer and sunnier weather)
  • Rain Haters (particularly bad mood on rainy days)

Ten percent of those diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder suffer symptoms at the brightest time of the year. The summer’s brutal heat, bright light, and long days can affect a person’s circadian rhythm and contribute to depression for the opposite reasons that winter conditions do.

If you’re a Summer Hater, or just notice that your mood is affected negatively by the heat, here are some summer depression busters that may help you better tolerate these months — maybe even enjoy them.

Rewire Your Burned-out Brain

Burnout often results from extended periods enduring the emotional stress precipitated by unaccomplished expectations or failure to fulfill unreasonable demands. The symptoms can include intensified emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, lowered self-worth, changes in eating and exercising habits, social withdrawal, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

If You’re Burned Out, Your Brain Has Rewired to Survival Mode

There are specific and reproducible patterns of changing neural activity and brain connectivity associated with the stress buildup that leads to burnout. In the high-stress state subjects’ neuroimaging scans reveal less activity in the higher, reflective brain (Prefrontal cortex/PFC) and more activity in the lower, reactive brain that controls involuntary behaviors and emotional responses. Prolonged stress correlates with structural increases in the density and speed of the neuron-to-neuron connections in the emotion-driven reactive networks of the lower brain and corresponding decreases connections in prefrontal cortex conscious and reflective control centers.

The explanation of these changes is attributed to the brain’s neuroplasticity defined by the phrase: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain literally rewires to be more efficient in conducting information through the circuits that are most frequently activated.

When stress is frequent, the more frequent activation of the neural pathways to the lower, stress-reactive brain results in their strengthening from enhanced wiring (dendrites, synapses, myelinated axons). These pathways can become so strong that they become your brain’s fast route to its lower, reactive control centers. The stressful, burned out state when the lower, reactive brain is in charge overcomes the calm, reflective, and productive higher neural processing in the (PFC) – the preferred brain locale for control of behavior and emotional self-management.

As your efforts to achieve unreasonable goals are thwarted or increasing demands recur, and the lower brain dominates more frequently, you lose touch with your reflective brain. With less management coming from your reflective PFC, it becomes harder and harder to logically see these challenges in realistic perspective or to solve problems creatively.

Disappointments take on more emotional power and without your higher brain’s perspective, they are interpreted as personal failures. Your self-doubt and stress further activate and strengthen your brain’s involuntary, reactive neural networks. The spiral down to burnout accelerates as these circuits become the automatic go-to networks. Your brain achieves less success in problem-solving and emotional control and ultimately reacts by withholding efforts to escape the burnout state.

Reset Your Brain’s Default Neural Network from Retreat to IGNITE!

The good news is you can apply what we’ve learned from neuroscience about your brain’s survival mode to take actions to retrieve voluntary control of your choices and emotional wellbeing.

You can activate the same neuroplasticity, that gave dominance to the lower brain networks in the burnout state, to construct a new, stronger positive default response. With increasing successful experiences in achieving goals, you can reset the circuits to redirect your brain to access its highest cognitive resources. You can build up newly improved circuitry switching your responses from retreat to IGNITE for mindful awareness and creative problem-solving!

Since an effort-failure pattern sets up the brain’s survival response to withhold effort, you’ll need to strengthen your brain’s recognition that effort toward your goals can result in success. Your weapon of mass reconstruction can come from your brain’s very powerful drive for its own intrinsic neurochemical reward— dopamine and the deeply satisfying and motivating pleasure it brings. When the brain releases dopamine in rewarding bursts, you experience a deep intrinsic satisfaction along with increased motivation, curiosity, perseverance, and memory. Dopamine is particularly released when your brain recognizes that you’ve achieved a challenge (from the “I get it” of figuring out a joke to the satisfaction of completing a marathon).

To get the dopamine-pleasure response from challenges achieved, you’ll need to plan for your brain to experience frequent recognition (feedback awareness) of incremental progress. The choices of what you set as a goal should be guided by their desirability and the goal’s suitability to be broken down into clear segments. You want to set goals, the progress of which, you can chart or easily recognize with each stepwise challenge and success. The pleasure burst of dopamine’s intrinsic motivation accompanying your brain’s recognition of each progressive increment achieved in the goal pathway will keep you motivated to persevere.

Goal Buy-In for Your Brain’s Neural REWIRING

Buy-in and relevance are important in choosing your rewiring goal. Since your goal is to rewire your brain’s expectations that your goal efforts do yield progress, despite increasing challenge, you need to really want the goal. This is not the time to challenge yourself with something you feel you should do, but won’t really look forward to, such as dieting, climbing stadium stairs, or flossing after every meal.

The idea of planning and achieving goals as a burnout intervention is probably not new to you. These are likely to be activities you’ve considered but didn’t do for the obvious reason. They take time. when it comes to adding another activity to your schedule, past experiences have left you with the expectation that there is not enough time.

These first goals that can provide ongoing awareness of your progress are often tangible (visible, such as planting a garden or making pottery on a wheel, or auditory such as playing an instrument, or physical such as learning tai chi), but your goal can also be spending more time at something you already do, but want to do more frequently or successfully, such as journaling, practicing yoga, or sketching.

You’ll Find Your Own Goal for Buy-In, but Here are Some Examples of Planning 

Physical goals: Notice I didn’t say exercise. That’s not as motivating as “training” for a physical goal you want to achieve, even though they often overlap. If you want to run a 10K, and you enjoy running, the goal for an achievable challenge could first be building up to the distance starting with your baseline distance you comfortably run now. Then, plot out the increments that you’ll consider progressive successes, such as adding 100M each day or a week (with increments based on what you consider both challenging and achievable). Once you reach 10K goal, speed can become the next goal again plotted out in segments of incremental progress before you start.

Hobbies: From woodworking to shooting wooden arrows, hobbies really are opportunities for brain rewiring. Again, plan your stepwise achievable challenge increments. If you select darts, start with a home dartboard—low initial investment and throw from a close, but challenging distance at first. As you get better in accuracy move back further. Record your results with the notations of the distance of each improvement you set as an achievable challenge. If you get so good that you are no longer challenged by the dartboard, try that archery!

Mindfulness and meditation are certainly positive interventions for burnout and will be topics of a subsequent blog.

Your Rewired Brain’s Default Changes from Defeat to Ignite

With your understanding of what happened in your brain to create the hopeless frustration of burnout, you’ll hopefully have more positive expectations to help you put in the effort to try (or retry) suggested interventions. Your own natural dopamine-reward system will then be at work deconstructing the resistance network built by your burnout as you reset your circuits of motivation.

The repeated experiences of dopamine-reward you’ll experience as you monitor your goal progress will literally change your brain’s circuitry. Repeated effort-reward experiences promote the neuroplasticity creating neural networks that expect positive outcomes in your new default network. This is because your brain will build stronger connections into the memory pattern. The expectation in achieving this challenge will bring pleasure. As with other less used networks, the previous lower brain stress-activated go-to response network you developed in burn-out, that caused you to react negatively to stressors, will be pruned away from disuse.

You’ll be rewired with optimism and renew positive expectations about your self-efficacy. With your higher, reflective brain back in control, as you access your perseverance, innovation, and creative problem-solving when you need them.

Just be sure to take the time to break down big challenges into opportunities to recognize incremental progress as you achieve each small step en route to your goals. With that positive recharge, your well-deserved dopamine reward will sustain your brain’s motivated perseverance on to the next step of the path to your goals.

Dr. Judy Willis is a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher, specializing in brain research regarding learning and the brain. With a unique background as both a neurologist and classroom teacher, she writes extensively for professional educational and parenting journals and has written six books about applying the mind, brain, and education research to classroom teaching and parenting strategies. The Association of Educational Publishers honored Dr. Willis as a finalist for the Distinguished Achievement Award for her educational writing. Check out her website.

 

 

‘Better Call Saul’ Highlights Stress and Mental Illness in the Legal Profession

The ABA Journal reports: “Chuck McGill’s suicide in Better Call Saul reflects what is happening within the legal profession throughout the United States. But anxiety and depression are not confined to practicing lawyers. A study of law school students at Yale University found that 70 percent admitted to suffering from some form of mental health issues. Eighty percent of those respondents considered help, but only half of them actually sought it out. Read the article.

 

SHUTDOWN: WHY PEOPLE WITH DEPRESSION FEEL SO NEGATIVE

Depression is a state of shutdown in which an individual’s psychological system shifts toward negative feeling states and diminishes the positive feeling states. The hallmark features of a depressive episode is a high negative mood state (characterized primarily in terms of depressed/demoralized/defeated/despairing feelings and secondarily in terms of anxiety, irritability/defensive hostility, and guilt/shame) and a diminished positive mood state (loss of interest, pleasure, energy, desire, and excitement).

Why do people get depressed? The primary reason people enter depressive shutdowns because they cannot obtain the necessary psychological nourishment needed to energize their behavioral investment system. Think of it as being akin to a state of starvation, only instead of physiological nutrition, the individual is lacking psychological nutrition. What is psychological nutrition? The fundamental principle that underlies psychological organization is that of behavioral investment. The psychological system is organized to direct mental energy and action toward investments that offer a return on those expenditures. When one is a getting a good return on one’s investments, then one feels fulfilled, energized and engaged. However, when one is not getting a good return, one begins to feel frustrated, anxious, irritable, or disappointed. If one cannot find an effective pathway for getting one’s needs met, one begins to enter into a state of psychological shutdown called depression.

So what are the core psychological needs that people have that need to be nourished? There are many different possible classification systems of needs (and motives and goals that people seek fulfillment around, see, e.g., here). I offer five categories here that overlap loosely with Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs.

Safety and Security Needs. First and foremost, the psychological investment system is concerned with basic safety and survival. If one’s physical safety is chronically threatened, if one is in constant pain, if one is chronically hungry, and so forth, the attention of the system will largely be focused here.

The Base Pleasures. Good sex, tasty food, relaxing on a warm summer day on the beach after working hard. The “hedonic” pleasures serve as a fundamental reward and signal positive investments (at least in the short term). Good investment systems are generally characterized by meaningful effort and hard work toward a productive goal, followed by short periods of relaxing and enjoying the base pleasures.

Relational Needs. Our core psychosocial need is to be known and valued by important others. Most notably, this includes being known and valued by members of our family of origin, friends/peers, romantic partners, and community. Needs for relational value are reflective of one’s degree of social influence. And folks go about achieving social influence and relational value in different ways. For example, see here for power and achievement needs relative to belonging and intimacy needs.

Developmental Growth Needs. We can think about an individual’s psychological system as being akin to an investor’s portfolio. An investor has resources that have the potential for growth and loss. An investor with a diverse portfolio whose investments are growing in a way that is exceeding expectation is flourishing. The same is true for an individual. Each individual will have “personal projects” that are engagements they are involved in that afford opportunities for growth (hobbies, interests, creative and playful endeavors, meaningful work projects, etc.). If an individual is chronically stuck and not growing or is largely cutoff from their growth pathways, or is frequently failing to meet expectations, or is deeply investing in pathways based on extrinsic reasons that are not consistent with their underlying emotional/motivational needs (or intuitive sense of potential), then the investment system is vulnerable.

Existential/Transcendental/Virtuous Needs. Adult humans are meaning-making creatures that need to have a narrative for how their lives and personal projects make sense. As Victor Frankl notes in his timeless classic Man’s Search for Meaning, if they cannot place their suffering, personal projects, virtues and relationships in the context of a larger narrative that provides meaning, then they will be vulnerable to developing a nihilistic attitude, which is the belief that their lives or actions really don’t matter, because really nothing matters. A nihilistic narrative can undercut the emotional value that folks get from engaging in such projects, leading to existential crises or depressions.

Why do people have trouble getting their psychological needs met? Sometimes the answer is obvious. For example, consider the city of Aleppo in Syria. The people of that city have been completely brutalized and many folks there undoubtedly feel depressed. (As an interesting aside, it is worth noting that the field of psychiatry/clinical psychology is divided as to whether such individuals should be considered “clinically depressed”). In other obvious cases, folks get depressed because of chronic pain or illness, or death of a loved one or because they get addicted so substances that ruin their lives or because they are abused or isolated.

Other times the issue is much more complicated. Consider that there are many people that live in nice houses and seem to be surrounded by caring people and are achieving in their lives, yet they also get depressed. Indeed, despite the fact that we have more and more technology and more and more resources and control over our environment, we seem to be struggling more than ever with feelings of depression and anxiety. What is going on in these cases?

The short answer is that I think the modern, fast-paced society is placing many new, unusual stressors on our emotional system. And I don’t think people have been well-educated about how to appropriately process negative feelings. People have been given much more freedom to acknowledge negative feelings than in past generations (read this story to see what I mean), but there has not been good education on how to learn and grow from such feelings (see here or here). What I see in my clinic is that individuals try to avoid negative feelings, and wish everything would just be fine. They often try to act publicly like everything is fine, but they have no idea how to maturely process and learn from their negative feelings. Instead, they enter into an intra-psychic battle with their negative feelings, often working to banish them, or criticize themselves out of their feelings or try to “stay positive”. This creates a powerful “split” in their psychological systems. Namely, their feeling system is sending one signal, their internal narrator is in conflict with that signal, and they are trying to publicly present a totally different image than their inner conflict. All of this sets the stage for a “neurotic breakdown”.

In addition, I see many parents who value their kids, but who do not know how to guide their children in processing negative feelings. Instead, too many have been caught up in “self-esteem nation” and act in an overprotective way, essentially communicating both that their kids are fragile and that others are responsible for keeping you happy. Another group teaches their kids to repress and minimize their feelings. I am not blaming parents here. The modern world is complicated and psychologists and psychiatrists have generally not done a great job being clear about the nature of emotions and relational needs.

At the societal level, we need to recognize both the dramatic changes the information technological revolution has brought to our world and how many of the institutions that provided guidance for the good life are breaking down. Religious systems have lost much of their authority. The political system has broken down into a polarized way. I think our educational system is broken in the way it assesses performance and fails to teach character values. Science often seems to characterize the world as an amoral, meaningless physical system. In other words, in terms of our existential/transcendental understanding, there seems little that supports the deep-seated need that many people have for true meaning making. So, we live in a fast-paced, high-stress world in which we are overloaded with choice, we regularly observe massive amounts of inequity in power and resources, we give lip service to negative feelings but often characterize them as disease states and provide very little real education about human emotions and needs, and institutions that provided deep meaning making systems have lost their authority.

The bottom line is that depression arises, in most cases, when people do not receive the necessary psychological nourishment from their investments. This arises because of brutal environments and injury from traumas, diminished capacities to meet growth expectations, intrapsychic and interpersonal conflict with important others. Unable to find a path forward folks shutdown and, unfortunately, getting depressed in modern society likely creates more problems than it solves. So folks get trapped in neurotic depressive cycles.

There is clearly no easy fix, as depression is a massive health problem. But I do believe there is much that can be done. We need (and can achieve) a much better shared understanding of human psychological needs and nourishment. We also need a clear recognition from institutions like the World Health Organization that depression emerges as a function of psychological malnourishment, rather than being brain disease stemming from neurological malfunctions.

My ultimate vision is for the development of a holistic meaning-making system that harmonizes the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities in a way that affords an understanding of our human natures such that we can have a more effective guide toward fulfillment during these rapidly changing times.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., author of A New Unified Theory of Psychology, directs the Combined Clinical and School Psychology Doctoral Program at James Madison University. He is a licensed clinical psychologist with expertise in depressionsuicide, and the personality disorders. He has developed a new meta-theoretical system for psychology articulated in many professional journals and is now applying that system to researching well-being, personality, and social motivation, and he and his students are working on the development of a general system of psychotherapy. Henriques received his M.A. in Clinical/Community Psychology from UNC-Charlotte and his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Vermont. He also completed several years of post-doctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania under Aaron T. Beck exploring the effectiveness of various cognitive psychotherapy interventions for suicide and psychosis. Henriques teaches courses in personality theory, personality assessment, social psychology and integrative adult psychotherapy.

 

Am I Depressed Because I’m a Lawyer?

Patrick Krill, a lawyer turned mental health counselor and consultant to law firms about lawyer mental health issues tries to answer the question: “A predicate to all of this, however, is the need to determine if you are actually depressed. Maybe you just hate your job, end of story. Moving on to a different practice or firm could be the change you need.  Or, maybe you have an underlying medical condition that is masquerading as or causing a depressed feeling.”  Read the rest of his blog here.

Big Law Tackles Mental Health Crisis Issues With On-Site Programs; Is Its Business Model at Fault?

The ABA Journal report that Big firms have long been reticent to openly address addiction and other mental-health problems, despite research showing lawyers face higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide than the wider population,” the article says. “Law firm leaders say the need to keep up appearances in a competitive industry has contributed to the resistance. That attitude, however, is slowly changing. Read the article.

Depression Undercover: A Trial Lawyer’s Secret

Once upon a time, I was a trial attorney at a personal injury defense firm. I was good at it.  I always pushed hard; always did the best job possible.  I won a good share of cases, and, of course, lost a few as well.  I was valued highly enough to be made a partner shortly after joining the firm.

But I had a dirty little secret.  I had bipolar disorder, which was well-controlled through a close partnership with a good psychiatrist.  Still, in my mind, if word ever got out, my employers would see me as weak, a liability.  To a degree, I understood.  If the insurance companies that paid the bills learned that one of the firm’s trial attorneys had such a condition, their mandate would be clear: if you want our business, get rid of him. That is what I assumed.

Throughout my career, colleagues would make offhanded remarks about someone “not taking his medication.” I would grit my teeth and ignore it.

Instead, I was able to construct an alter-ego, the “happy warrior.”  I had a smile on my face and a sardonic remark ready on cue. But I went about my daily business feeling like a secret agent in a Cold War spy movie.  If my cover was ever blown, I was certain that my career would be at an end.

Over time, maintaining this secret identity while dealing with the usual strains of trial practice gave rise to a growing depression.  Yet I still performed at a high level and still got results.

Although I had a close friend at the firm, another partner, he would deflect when I tried to talk to him about my depression, so I stopped.  I began to worry that others at the firm might know about me.

Fear and the sense of isolation only fed upon themselves in a continuous cycle.  I finally experienced a severe episode of depression that led to a period of disability.  When I told my boss what was going on, he expressed genuine surprise that I was suffering from depression at all.

When I returned to work, I felt better, but I remained wary.  Instead of engaging in a conversation about what had happened, we all acted as though nothing had occurred.  The computer was rebooted, and business continued on as usual.  I went back undercover, and no one seemed to mind.

Simply due to scheduling conflicts and adjournments, it was some time before I tried another case.  I admit that I was a little nervous, but I was having no trouble handling my case load.  I was puzzled when my boss came into my office one afternoon as I was preparing for the trial.  He asked me if I felt good to go.  He had never done that before.  I said, “yes,” because I felt perfectly up to the task.  I never asked myself, “If he is worried about my performance, why is he even letting me try the case?”

At trial, the insurance company sent an adjuster to audit the proceedings, a routine procedure.  I knew him well, and he had an excellent grasp of the case, even though he had not been involved before trial.  We had constant discussions about what was going on, and we seemed to be in sync.  Suddenly, the insurance company pulled my old friend off the case and replaced him with a mid-level manager who consistently praised my performance.

The case went to verdict, and the jury awarded somewhat less than what the insurance company had offered settle for.  To preclude the possibility of an appeal, the insurance company threw in a few more dollars.  Case closed, on to the next one.  To me, that was a pretty good result.

Was I in for a big surprise.

Shortly after the trial, year-end reviews were scheduled.  I was getting ready for another trial, and I was very excited about it, so I wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on in the office.  Other attorneys were getting their reviews – important because raises would be discussed – but I was never called in.

Ultimately, my case settled after much hard work on all sides, and the usual time for reviews was long past.  I did start to worry then.  I even made a remark to my secretary about it.

The call finally came.  When I stepped into the conference room and saw every equity partner in the firm waiting for me, I knew.  The spy had been caught, but what would happen?

My boss said that they waited to speak with me because they did not want to put pressure on me while I was preparing for another trial.  He asked me if I felt capable of trying cases.  I paused and then broke under the years of strain.  I wept, and answered, “No.”  Whether that “No” was true then or true now or was ever true, it was the most humiliating moment of a 20-year career.

My boss started to dissect my prior trial, telling me that the insurance company’s representative was reporting that I was doing a bad job.  He even told me that the supervisor at the insurance company knew that I had depression.  After the expected awkward silence, another partner suggested that “we find a creative solution” to keep me at the firm.  I made some suggestions over the next few months.  No replies were forthcoming.  I was quietly being swept out the door.  It wasn’t hard to get the message. I found another job and moved on.

The whole experience seemed to confirm everything I feared about being a lawyer with depression.  Currently, I am not practicing, and am seeking other opportunities.

But if the story ends there, what is the point?  Can I offer my account as a teaching opportunity?  At the very heart of the tale lies the sad truth that we, as lawyers, trained to be superlative communicators, can utterly fail to make each other understood when it comes to depression.  Should I have been more candid about my condition?  My employers never told me what concerns they had or what they knew.  Could all of us have been proactive for our mutual benefit, especially after I returned to work?  I believe that there had been an opportunity to open a constructive dialogue, but my fear told me to keep my mouth shut.  I cannot speak for my former employers, although I highly doubt that they held any malice.  I doubt that they thought much about it at all until some critical pressure was brought to bear, whether from within or outside of the firm.  Unfortunately, by the time everyone was talking, my job at a firm I loved was gone.

I miss working there.  I still have close friends there.  I see them when I can, which is not often enough.  Just recently, I ran into my secretary, and we briefly chatted about my plans for the future.  And then she said something that cut me to the quick: “You were a good lawyer.”

— Anonymous guest blog

How Untreated Depression Contributes to the Opioid Epidemic

The Atlantic reports: “Several researchers now believe depression, one of the most common medical diagnoses in the U.S., might be one underlying cause that’s driving some patients to seek out prescription opioids and to use them improperly. People with depression show abnormalities in the body’s release of its own, endogenous, opioid chemicals. Depression tends to exacerbate pain—it makes chronic pain last longer and hurts the recovery process after surgery.” Read the rest of the story here.

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