Depressed Lawyers: A Little Help for My Friends

Among the lawyers whom I have known, it occurs to me that the only ones I’ve liked have had bouts of depression. So when Dan Lukasik, lawyer and depression sufferer, invited me to write a piece for his, I gladly agreed.


In “Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic,” I explain how depression is neither a character defect nor a biochemical defect but a “strategy” for shutting down overwhelming pain. Given the level of pain in the lives of many lawyers, it does not surprise me that of 104 occupations surveyed by John Hopkins researchers, lawyers were the most likely to suffer depression, 3.6 times more likely than average.

Lawyers all too routinely experience the pain of injustice, the pain of the ugly side of human nature and the pain of money. For a sensitive soul, these pains can become insufferable. Some depressed lawyers, in confidence, tell me about another pain: interacting with soulless colleagues who maintain a “life-is-good” grin on their face as they swim through the day unmoved by the misery that surrounds them.

Many historians consider one depressed lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, to be the greatest U.S. president because of his critical thinking, wisdom and compassion. According to Joshua Wolf Shenk’s “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Fueled a President to Greatness,” the evidence is strong that by today’s standards Lincoln would have been diagnosed with major depression. Support for this thesis rests not simply on the famous Lincoln quote, “I am now the most miserable man living”; and goes beyond the observation of Lincoln by his longtime law partner William Herndon that, “gloom and sadness were his predominant state.”


Shenk reports that Lincoln actually suffered two major breakdowns, which included suicidal statements that frightened friends enough to form a suicide watch.
Lincoln’s propensity for gloom was widely known during his lifetime, but in an era when a dark temperament was viewed as neither a character defect nor a biochemical defect, it actually helped Lincoln politically more than it hurt him. Shenk points out that Lincoln’s depression “seemed not a matter of shame but an intriguing aspect of his character, and indeed an aspect of his grand nature.”

In contrast, after depression was medicalized, George McGovern’s 1972 vice presidential running mate Thomas Eagleton was shoved off the ticket because of his history of medical treatment for depression. This calls into question the contention that diseasing depression destigmatizes it. Despite billions of dollars spent attempting to establish biochemical markers for depression, no such markers exist. This is why depression continues to be diagnosed via symptom checklists, not with lab tests, brain scans or any other biochemical means. And recently, psychiatry officialdom discarded the serotonin deficiency explanation of depression.

Is there a better model for both understanding and overcoming depression?

There exists a great deal of research showing that depression is highly associated with overwhelming pain including the pains of loneliness, a miserable marriage, childhood trauma, poverty, unemployment, physical incapacitation and a variety of significant hurts and losses. Instead of viewing depression as either a character defect or a biochemical defect, depression is better seen as a strategy for shutting down overwhelming pain.

Similar to the shutdown strategy of substance abuse, depression can also get out of hand and become a compulsion (a behavior not freely chosen). Compulsive shutdown strategies such as depression not only shut down pain but also can shut down our entire being. Hence the classic symptoms of depression: shutdown of energy; shutdown of the ability to experience pleasure including the shutdown of sex drive; shutdown of cognitive functions such as attention, memory and concentration; and sometimes complete shutdown and immobilization.

In modern industrial societies, immobilization is terrifying because it can lead to poverty, homelessness and institutionalization, so the fear of immobilization is quite rational. This fear is painful, and so we may use depression or other shutdown strategies to suppress it. Thus we have a vicious cycle: pain, a shutdown strategy such as depression resulting in immobilization, a fear of immobilization and more depression to shut down that painful fear.

A major reason why I wrote Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic was to provide a way out of that vicious cycle. One problem for critically thinking lawyers is that critical thinking is associated with depression. Studies show that moderately depressed people are more accurate in their assessments of an often-painful reality than are non-depressed people. There’s more bad news for critical thinkers. Critical thinking can make it more difficult for standard psychiatric treatments to work.

To the extent that one knows the truth about depression treatments—that no treatment, including antidepressants, has been proven to be much more effective than a placebo— it makes it more difficult to have faith in treatment. This lack of faith makes it more difficult for treatment to “work.” In reflecting on the empirical research on depression: my work with depressed people; biographies and memoirs of people who have experienced depression; and my own personal experience with demoralization, immobilization and despair, it is difficult to deny the power of what scientists call “the placebo effect” —which is more commonly called “belief” and “faith.”

If one has faith in the efficacy of a treatment or approach, one’s likelihood of overcoming depression increases. Lincoln, for example, came to have faith in humor and meaningfulness, which were two powerful antidepressants for him. Many Lincoln biographers note that Lincoln told jokes and funny stories as a political tool to both disarm and connect, but Lincoln also used humor as an antidote for depression. Lincoln said, “If it were not for these stories—jokes –jests, I should die; they give vent—are the vents of my moods and gloom.”

Lincoln also discovered the antidepressant power of meaningfulness. Though Lincoln shared with other politicians the trait of ambition, he also wanted his life to have genuine meaning, which he found first in attempting to stop the spread of slavery and then, when the political climate changed, in his Emancipation Proclamation. Can meaningfulness provide lifesaving morale?


In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl describes a harrowing tale of his physical, psychological and spiritual survival in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl states that in the concentration camps, “The thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone.” Frankl discusses the therapy he provided for two men who seriously talked about suicide: “In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them.”

For one man, it was a child waiting in a foreign country, and for the other, a scientist, lifesaving meaning was a series of books that no one but he could complete. I wrote “Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic” for critical thinkers who are pained by the injustices and dehumanization of modern society, some of whom become depressed and are failed by standard psychiatric treatments.

While critical thinkers are more likely to experience depression and less likely, from my experience, to be helped by standard psychiatric treatments, the good news is that there are—in addition to humor and meaningfulness— other solutions for a depressed critical thinker with a soul.

Editor’s Note: Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and has been in private practice in Cincinnati, Ohio since 1985. Dr. Levine’s most recent book is Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy. Dr. Levine lectures, provides workshops and is a regular contributor to numerous magazines.

The $tress of Success


We avatars of the legal system, we hired guns who ride into town and shoot up saloons, measure our success by the notches on our dusty belts: Did I win or lose?  Or, perhaps more accurately, is it: Am I a winner or a loser? There is a thrill about winning and being successful, however we define it — but also a lot of stress.

Results, bottom-line bastards that they are, can spew toxic stress into our bodies like BP oil into the Gulf.  Many lawyers struggle to shut off their inner dialogue that pings between their ears as they lay awake at night and their family sleeps:  “Will I be successful tomorrow?  Will I bill enough hours this month?” We mash ourselves up like Idaho potatoes flopping around in our beds as the minutes click away on our L.E.D. alarm clocks.

 I wrote an article for Trial Magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression.  Here’s a part of that article:

 “How our bodies and brains deal with stress and anxiety hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years.  A wonderful defense mechanism, which is wired into our nervous system, is called the fight-or-flight response.  When confronted with a threat – whether real or perceived – this response kicks in and floods our bodies with the powerful hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which propel us into action.  This was an essential survival device for our ancestors who lived in the jungle and would have to flee beasts or fight foes trying to kill them.

Lawyers don’t face these types of real life-or-death threats. But they perceive life-or-death threats in their battles with opposing counsel while sitting in a deposition or sparring in the courtroom.  Our bodies respond as if they were being chased by a hungry lion.  Over time, this chronic anxiety causes the release of too many fight-or-flight hormones.  Research has shown that prolonged release of cortisol damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory and the amydala (involved in how we perceive fear).”

Living in the jungle of our profession doesn’t involve warding off wooly mammoths, but it does involve a fight-or-flight from mental constructions in our heads:  the fear of missing a court ordered deadline can create panic in our nervous system every bit as real as a tangling with a beast that tried to kill our ancestors.

Lawyers are perfectionists and overachievers who are never content to give things their just their best try.  They believe in dumping large amounts of energy into each and every project. Such extraordinary efforts are stressful on our bodies and minds.  Yet, we know all of this, don’t we?  The truth is that many lawyers have already made the calculations in their heads and are willing to take the pounding for more dollars.  We come back to our abodes at the end of our days exhausted, peak at our mutual funds statements and turn on the T.V. too tired to think about the implications of living this type of life.

Lawyer Steve Keeva, in his piece Take Care of Yourself, wrote:

 “The dominant method of legal billing can, if you let it, subvert your ability ‘to claim a full and rich life   for yourself,’ as litigator John McShane put it.  Think about it. Billing by the hour is extraordinary in the way in which it so nakedly equates money with time.  It thereby offers no incentive at all to stop working. The taskmaster par excellence can reduce grown professionals to slavish piece workers.” 

When exploring the stress of success, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that depression happens in a context, a cultural milieu and a profession’s mores.  Too often, we put everything on the individual – her depressive thinking, his genetic makeup – as if depression in a person forms and takes place in a vacuum:  if it “takes a village to raise a child;” well, it takes a culture to create conditions for depression to develop.

We are social creatures that need support from our families, institutions and society.  These structures help mitigate stress and prevent depression.  Yet,  contemporary culture has largely failed us: the breakdown in families, the betrayal of cultural and political institutions, a grimy cynicism in people, vacuous and crass entertainment unmitigated consumerism and a legal profession which endorses the value of professionalism while lawyers say that levels of incivility between lawyers is at an all time high.  It’s become more of a business than a profession and calling, it’s become more mercenary in nature where lawyers forget that they are officers of the court and not just there to do the bidding of a well paying client.

Bruce Levine, Ph.D., author of the book Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic, writes about renowned psychoanalyst and social critic Eric Fromm’s commentary on the connection between our cultural values and depression.  Here is an excerpt from book about the dangers of a comsumerism driven culture:

“Fromm argued that the increase in depression in modern industrial societies is connected to their economic systems.  Financial success in modern in modern cultural societies is associated with heightened awareness of financial self-interest, resulting in greater self-absorption, which can increase the likelihood of depression; while a lack of financial interest in such an economic system results in deprivation and misery, which increases the likelihood for depression.  Thus, escaping depression in such a system means regularly taking actions based on financial self-interest while at the same time not drowning in self-absorption – no easy balancing act.

The idea that money and buying stuff and acquiring status = happiness isn’t treated for what it is – a paper thin myth.  Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with making money; buying things and wishing to obtain a certain level of success in our careers. It’s a healthy recognition of the limitations of our income and what it really can buy that makes all the difference and keeps us out of this downward spiral.

In the book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, author Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., concludes:

 “One of the reasons for the failure of materialism to make us happier may be that even hen people finally attain their monetary goals; the achievement doesn’t translate into an increase into an increase in happiness. Also, materialism may distract people from relatively more meaningful and joyful aspects of their lives, such as nurturing their relationships with family and friends, enjoying the present, and contributing to their communities.  Finally, materialistic people have been found to hold unrealistically high expectations of what material things can do for them.  One father confided to me that he believed that purchasing a forty-tow-inch flat-panel TV would improve his relationship with his son.  It didn’t.

A more spiritual take on the issue was penned by famed author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton.  In his classic work, No Man Is an Island, he writes:

 “One of the chief obstacles to a sense of wholeness in life is the selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything, to be a brilliant success in our own eyes and in the eyes of other men. We can only get rid of this anxiety by being content to miss something in almost everything we do. We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything, drains every experience to its last dregs. But if we have the courage to let almost everything else go, we will probably be able to retain the one thing necessary for us -whatever it may be. If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need.

Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the ‘one thing necessary’ may be, in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.”

For Merton, that one thing was God.  For some of us with depression, this may be our touchstone as well; a center around which to slow down the centrifugal force of our spinning lives.  For the others, it may be our family or friends.  But whatever it is, it must ground us and bring out, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “The better angels of our nature.”

To lessen the stress in your life, and the risk for developing or exacerbating your depression, try these tips from your friend Dan:

1.   Fast for a few days from the radio in your car, the newspapers or fooling around on your Blackberry.  Take a time out.  Think of it as an experiment.  Lawyers complain that they’re stressed out only to dump more information and stimulation into their craniums at every few moment they have.  Lawyers already read and think enough for a living – give your nervous system a break for crying out loud.

2.   Hand in hand with the above, incorporate some slice of silence into your life.  It doesn’t have to be a monastic experience.  I wear a runner’s watch and do a ten to fifteen minute period of silence a day.  If you don’t do something like this, you know what you’re stuck with – too much noise.

3.   Start asking yourself some questions.  What toll on your mental and physical health is your drive to succeed exacting on your life?  Make an actual list, take it out every day and read it.  The purpose is to try to become more conscious of the actual cost of your career to you.  People tell me they don’t have the time to do this, but then spend hours researching whether to buy a Lexus or Audi.  The irony of it all.We love accumulating things and experiences in our society.  Instead of adding something into your life, what can you drop out of it that would make you feel better? 

4.   Read something that would nurture you as a person and dump the rest of the crap.  Read only one thing at a time.  Maybe a book of poetry or the biography of a heroic person. 

5.   Reconnect with the humorous, whether highbrow or sophomoric.  Plug into it and have a gut-busting hoot.

6.   Remember, that life isn’t a dress rehearsal.  The time you’re spending at your job is a segment of finite time that you’re given.  Once it’s spent, it’s spent.  No one tells you how to spend it, despite what you might have gotten yourself around to believing.   Remember, you choose.  My priest once said that on every gravestone there are two dates:  the date we were born and the date we died.  We don’t get to choose those dates.  But between those dates, is a dash line: “—.” That dash is our life and what we have done with it.  Resolve to be a person whose dash is driven by substance and not solely by success.  As Mark Twain once wrote, “Let your life sing so that upon your death, even the undertaker will weep.”

7.   The notion of “quality time” for oneself or others is largely bullshit.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. once said that to overcome depression we need to start investing in ourselves like we’re worth it: exercising, sleeping enough, etc.   No matter how you slice it, there is no small amount of “quality time” in which you can achieve these basic self-care routines.  The reality is you will need to take whatever amount of time it takes because YOU are worth it.

8.   If you are locked in the success matrix as a lawyer, remember that it doesn’t have to stay that way forever.  Realistically, your life won’t probably change tomorrow.  But it can begin to change in small way that can lead you in a healthier direction.

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