A Conversation With Dr. Tyger Latham

Editor’s Note:   Dr. Tyger Latham is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C. and treats several lawyers in the D.C. area for depression. We caught up with him recently for this conversation about depression.

1. What is depression?

Depression is a mental health disorder that affects roughly 10 to 15 percent of the general population. According to the DSM, the manual used by psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose depression, a person is diagnosed with depression if she/he experiences depressed mood, along with several other related symptoms, for a minimum of 2 weeks. Some of these other symptoms include: disrupted sleep; diminished energy; changes in appetite or weight; difficulties with concentration; restlessness or lethargy; feelings of guilt, worthless, and helplessness; and, in extreme cases, thoughts of death or suicide. This is the medical definition of depression. However, this definition fails to capture the experience of what it’s like to be depressed. I think Paul Simon has described depression best when he wrote:

“Hiding in my room, safe within my womb, I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock feels no pain; and an island never cries.”

2. Have you treated many law students, lawyers and judges for it?

At any one time, I would say about a third of my practice is comprised of lawyers or law students, of which a large majority suffer from depression or some related mood disorder such as dysthymia or bipolar disorder.

3. Can you tell us what kind of issues concerning depression lawyers come to you for? (E.g. problems on job, marital)

As with all of my clients, I find that lawyers come to therapy for a myriad of reasons, including depression. In the case of lawyers, however, the practice of law often serves as a backdrop for their presenting concerns. I have yet to work with an attorney whose work was not adversely affected by their depression. In fact, many lawyers who are diagnosed with depression only become aware of it after it begins to affect their productivity. These lawyers might complain of being unable to concentrate; feeling indifferent or apathetic about their work; withdrawing from colleagues; or, in some cases, they talk with me about feeling burned-out or they might share fantasies of leaving the practice of law altogether. All of these symptoms can be associated with depression and when taken together they build a strong case for clinical depression.

Attorneys will often employ a number of coping strategies – some adaptive, others not-so-adaptive – to deal with their depression. Most attorneys are accustom to working long hours, so I often see many attorneys with depression pour themselves into their work as a way to escape. I’ve also worked with a number of attorneys who have resorted to alcohol and drugs as a way of managing their symptoms. While I wouldn’t say all attorneys who are depressed abuse alcohol and drugs, the majority of attorneys who abuse alcohol and drugs almost always suffer from some form of a mood disorder like depression, bipolar, or anxiety.

4. What are the causes of lawyer depression?

Depression often stems from a complicated constitution of factors. In most cases depressed lawyers, like most depressed individuals, have a genetic predisposition to the disorder. When I take a family history, I often hear about parents, siblings, and other close relatives who also suffer from depression.

The research shows that environmental factors also frequently contribute to whether a person will eventually develop depression. One of the most common precursors of depression is stress. In working with attorneys I’m often struck by the unrelenting amount of stress many of them have to endure. Whether it’s pressure to meet filing deadlines, dealing with demanding clients, or having to put in long hours at work, many lawyers are pushed to the breaking point every day.

Compounding the problem are characterological issues that often predispose lawyers to the disorder. Because lawyers are generally very driven – what we might term as “type A’s” – they are accustom to expecting a lot of themselves and others. However, even the most accomplished attorney has to be prepared for professional setback from time to time. In my experience, “healthy” attorneys are ones who are able to deal with adversity in stride. Those who cannot sometimes fall hard and those with depression often fall the hardest.

5. Why do you think studies show that lawyers suffer from depression at twice the rate of the general public?

That’s an excellent question and one that has not been fully addressed by the scientific research. I noticed Dan you cited Martin Seligman’s work on your website. Dr. Seligman and his colleagues at UPENN have studied a number of professions and the correlation between work and happiness. They’ve concluded that lawyers are some of the unhappiest people out there. Seligman has identified three characteristics common to lawyers that appear to predispose them to higher rates to depression. He cites (1) pessimism; (2) feelings of helplessness and (3) the “win-loss” mentality so common in the practice of law.

In terms of the first characteristic (pessimism) Seligman has devised a whole schema around the concept of happiness. He argues happy people are by nature more optimistic and tend to attribute negative events to temporary and external factors. Pessimists, on the other hand, do just they oppose and tend to attribute negative events to stable and pervasive factors. While having a pessimistic outlook might serve you well in the practice of law it can be a liability in so many other areas of a person’s life.

The second factor Seligman identifies has to do with the sense of autonomy a person feels. In reality, most lawyers starting out have little autonomy over their professional lives. Decisions are frequently made by the higher-ups, like say a partner in a firm. Such a sense of dependency can breed feelings of helplessness as well as resentment, feelings that are often associated with depression.

Finally, Seligman has commented on how the practice of law in the United States has become a “win-loss” proposition, whereby one side wins at the expense of another side losing. In this spirit, lawyers are being trained to be aggressive, emotionally detached, and at times ruthless. While none of these qualities – with perhaps the exception of the latter – is necessarily a bad thing, this litigious culture can come at a real cost. I find that many young lawyers – and even some older ones – have difficulty turning their legal brains off when they leave the office. This can contribute to conflicts and misunderstandings with family and friends who do not necessarily understand or share these values.

6. What are some solutions that you can share with us?

I wrote an article for Psychology Today in which I shared 10 tips to help guide lawyers in ways of seeking balance in their lives.

One lawyer after reading the article wrote me:

“We lawyers know that all of the things you mention would be a good thing. But that doesn’t make them practical. We can’t balance work and life when we’re so overwhelmed with work that we’re working 12-15 hours a day. We have no control over whom we work with and how they treat us (usually not so great). We need to make our hours to keep our jobs, and with the number of layoffs in the industry as of late, keeping jobs is not necessarily easy. We work for 8-10 years only to be told we won’t make partner and are out of a job – what other profession does that? And we get used to our salary before we realize how much it costs us. So yeah, I’m a depressed lawyer. I hope to quit one of these days, but in the meantime…. I should get to work.”

My 10 tips for lawyers are to:

1. Set realistic and obtainable goals based on what you have accomplished and experienced in the past.

2. Learn to prioritize your life, i.e., focus and put your efforts into action items that are truly important. Let go of those items that are either insignificant or not time-sensitive.

3. Recognize that “mistakes” are a part of life, essential, and often present the opportunity for important learning opportunities.

4. Be cognizant of your emotional barometer and use such information to evaluate whether you are achieving an optimal balance between life, work, and play. If you are stressed out all of the time, pay attention to that information and make changes that will enable you to reach equilibrium.

5. Take your mental health seriously. Consider your mental health to be as important as any other professional obligation. As with psychologists, impaired attorneys often ignore the early warning signs of mental illness and risk placing themselves as well as others in serious jeopardy.

6. Seek balance in your life. Make sure you are taking time to care for yourself so that you can care for your clients. As with other high-pressure and demanding professions, attorneys who neglect their physical, psychological, spiritual, and interpersonal lives run the risk of making mistakes on the job.

7. Learn to manage your stress by finding healthy outlets for it. Whether you manage your stress through exercise, socializing, or channeling your energies into other, non-legal pursuits and be sure to make time for these things. In fact, schedule them into your calendar and view them as every bit as important as your weekly meeting with the partners.

8. Accept that the practice of law is inherently stressful. While it is important to accept this reality, it is not okay to succumb to it.

9. Know and take advantage of your personal strengths, while acknowledging, accepting, and minimizing your weaknesses. No one is perfect and those who assume they are, are not only insufferable to be around but also run the risk of over-extending themselves, failing at their jobs, and potentially disappointing those who count on them.

10. Remember that true professionals know when to ask for help and delegate responsibility. Be familiar with the resources available to you – be they personal or professional – and utilize them. If you feel you are constantly “stressed out,” depressed, or struggling with substance abuse/dependence issues, get professional help immediately. Just as any psychologist would consult an attorney when addressing legal issues outside of their area o expertise, so too, an attorney should be prepared to consult a mental health worker if s/he feels ill-equipped to address the psychological stressors in her/his life.

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