Undoing Depression In Lawyers

Editor’s Note:  I have asked several leading psychologists to write a short article about their experiences with treating lawyers who suffer from depression.  One psychologist, Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., is the author of two noteworthy books, Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety, and 21st Century Illness andUndoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You. He is a practicing psychotherapist with offices in New York City and Canaan, Connecticut.  He has suffered from clinical depression and is a member of a depression support group.

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

I think this explains a lot about why lawyers are so prone to depression. Because of their experience with the law, most attorneys have lost their rose-colored glasses some time ago. (Or else they never had them and chose the law as a career because it suited their personality). Attorneys know that life is hard, and doesn’t play fair. They’re trained to look for every conceivable thing that could go wrong in any scenario, and they rarely are able to leave that attitude at the office.  They see the worst in people (sometimes they see the best, but that’s rare). They tend to be strivers and individualists, not wanting to rely on others for support. They have high expectations of success, but they often find that when they’ve attained success, they have no one to play with, and have forgotten how to enjoy themselves anyway.

All this makes it hard for attorneys to get help with their depression. They tend not to recognize it as such; they just think it’s stress, or burn out, or life. They don’t expect that anyone is going to be able to help. Most of my attorney-patients have contacted me because their relationships are falling apart, but they don’t see that it’s depression that makes them such a lousy partner – tense, irritable, critical, joyless, tired all of the time, relying on alcohol or other drugs. If they’d gotten help for the depression a couple of years previously, their spouse wouldn’t be moving out now. The truth about depression is that it not only makes you feel horrible, it wrecks your life. And that’s why I wrote the book, Undoing Depression, in the first place. I was running an outpatient clinic, and grew exasperated with seeing the people whose lives wouldn’t have been so ruined if they had got some help when they first needed it –  before they alienated their children and spouse, got fired, went into debt, developed a substance abuse problem, etc. I thought there was a need for an intelligent self-help book, one that points out all the bad habits that depression engenders and which, in a vicious circle, keeps reenforcing the disease. But the truth is that self-help isn’t nearly enough for most depression sufferers. It’s as if you stepped over an invisible cliff, and you can’t find your way back doing what you normally do, because that’s what led you over the cliff in the first place. Depression is the original mind/body disease; your physical brain is damaged because of the stress in your mind, and you’re unlikely to undo that damage without help.

Depression is highly treatable, but if you want a lasting recovery you have to change your life. The ugly fact is that depression is very likely to reoccur. If you had one episode of major depression, chances are 50:50 that you’ll have another; if you have three episodes, it’s 10:1 you’ll have more. But you can improve those odds if you get good professional help, with medication and with talk therapy. We won’t put your rose-colored glasses back on, but we can help you see how negative thinking and the negative acting is contributing to your disease.

[i]  See for example, Shelly Taylor: Positive Illusions; and Julie Noren: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.

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