“True Stories” is a series of guest blogs I am running on mental health in the legal profession. In this article, we explore the affect depression has on loved ones and their struggles to help.
Katie has been married to her law student husband for almost four years. She has grown into a more compassionate and well-rounded Certified Health Education Specialist and Mental Health First Aid provider from her experiences with her husband’s mental health issues. She enjoys sharing information with others about health and wellness. Her husband is currently searching for a job. As such, Katie has only given her first name.
Last year, my husband became a first-year law student at a state school with an excellent reputation. After several years of waffling between pursuing medicine, law, military, and scientific research careers, he opted for law and was admitted to many schools, accepting his best offer. We relocated so that he could attend, moving from the sunny Southwest to the frigid winters of the Mid-Atlantic. He was excited at first, eager to begin a new chapter of his life, and enthusiastic to embark on a learning journey; he loves to read and study politics, economics, business, and law, and he felt that this endeavor would help him fulfill his potential personally and professionally.
Shortly into the first year, I noticed my usually calm husband – laid-back almost to a fault – was frequently stressed. He worried constantly about understanding the material, completing his assignments, competing for grades, getting an internship, and even being able to get a job upon graduating. Although this may seem natural for law students (1Ls in particular), it was a marked change in his personality that lasted for weeks on end, almost to the point of keeping him from being able to study, write, or prepare for his classes.
His friendly nature struggled with the intense sense of competition among the other students, and he could not form many friendships, leaving him feeling isolated and lonely. Furthermore, the mounting pressure to perform dominated his thoughts, paralyzing him and making him reach a point of hopelessness; he felt that even his best wasn’t good enough and that there was no point in continuing if he couldn’t get a good job at the end of it all.
The Loving but Ignorant Spouse
I tried to play the supportive spouse. It seemed likely that many other students felt the same way as him but managed to focus more on the task at hand, not tying every tiny detail to future results. It even angered me that despite all the sacrifices we had both made for him to be able to return to school, he was risking it all because he refused to focus on anything but his potential for failure. I told him time and again that I was absolutely positive he would do just fine, that I wasn’t worried about his ability to succeed and get an excellent job, and that his understanding of the material would mean more for his career than a grade on his transcript, and that his best efforts would surely serve him well. But my encouragement didn’t help.
In the past, my husband was an avid athlete. He still holds a state record for his high school swimming times; he trained himself to run a half marathon every weekend and completed the entire P90-X workout course. This all stopped when we moved, and he started school, principally due to his lack of time. He snuck in a few workouts at the beginning of his first semester but quickly traded exercise for sleep whenever he had a spare minute. His ambitious early morning study sessions from the start of the semester had disappeared by fall break, and as the sun went down earlier every night, so did he. He began sleeping as much as he possibly could – sometimes, even falling asleep while studying or sleeping and skipping studying altogether. My usually upbeat, happy husband started making off-the-cuff remarks about how worthless he was and how stupid he felt, even tossing out an occasional comment about shooting himself so I wouldn’t have to repay his school loans, followed by swift assurances that he was “just kidding.”
Getting Serious About Depression
Even though I am a trained public health professional and a Certified Health Education Specialists, the signs flew right by me. I just assumed he was having difficulty adjusting to life in a new state, unhappy about making new friends, and committing considerable effort to his degree. I missed the signs of depression that were staring me in the face every single day. To make matters worse, three visits he made to the student health center for check-ups and care for his asthma found nothing of concern.
I am ashamed to admit that several months passed wherein I did absolutely nothing, I suppose in a state of self-denial. I couldn’t convince myself that he was not right, not healthy, that something was seriously wrong despite the symptoms I tried to tiptoe around on a regular basis. A kindly older neighbor was good enough to give me a kick in the pants to help my husband get the help he needed.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked – no beating around the bush. “He’s changed – he used to be so bright and smiley, and now he just seems…unhealthy and sad. A sad, defeated man.”
I was dumbfounded, utterly shocked, and hurt by what was the clear truth. My husband was suffering; he was miserable, and I had neglected him. I tearfully squeezed her hand and marched straight home to make an appointment with a counselor for him. He went the following week and, after a series of visits, tests, and consultations, was diagnosed with major depression. I was heartbroken and embarrassed at my failure to notice his cries for help earlier in the year, but I was relieved that he would get the help he needed.
Living With – and Healing From – Depression
I am happy to report that with exercise therapy and regular talk therapy, he has been able to manage his depression without medication. However, he still has some terribly painful bad days. We are starting to see what we hope is the light at the end of the tunnel for him. He is still pursuing his degree, and although he won’t be at the top of his class when he graduates, he has come to realize that a life-long career is built on more than where you fall on the grading curve. He has rediscovered his passion for running, and his sunny disposition is again bringing joy to both of our lives.
I wanted to share this story with any lawyers and law students potentially suffering from depressive symptoms to let you know that sometimes the people who most want to help you are not totally aware of what is going on in your head. Whether you think your behavior makes your pain obvious or you think you are hiding your emotions successfully, your loved ones are probably waiting for a wake-up call to push them into action. Be open with them about your pain, anxiety, and especially any suicidal thoughts. Sometimes, a few words about how serious your troubles are may be the impetus for positive change – having a helpful friend to walk the long and challenging road with you can make it easier for you to get the help you need in a timely and effective manner.
For me, it took an old lady with a keen skill for observation to spur me into helping my husband get the treatment he needed; if you don’t think old Mrs. Wilson down the street will be doing the same for you, have a conversation with someone today about what you are experiencing, and let them know you don’t want to keep feeling that way. Help is available. You can get it; a friend or family member will gladly assist. Don’t wait – lawyers and law students are in unique positions to help others, and life is too short to spend time battling a mental disorder that steals your talents from you and the world. So go on, tell someone, and start feeling better soon.
More from the “True Stories” Series:
“Depression Sucks & It’s Lonely, Too,” by lawyer Michael Herman
“A Trial Lawyer’s Dirty Little Secret: Depression,” by Anonymous.
The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website
“Analysis: Well-Being in Law School – Law Students Are Not Ok,” Jessica Blaemire, Bloomberg Law.
“Addressing Mental Health and Well-Being in Law Schools: An Interview with Law Professor Shailini George,” LawyerswithDepression website podcast discussion.
“Reducing Stress & Increasing Happiness as a Law Student & Applicant,” Interview with Law Professor or Mental Health Coach and Consultant Jordana Confino.