A lawyer with depression used to call me once a month. He would tell me about the emotional problems in his life. Many times, he cried. This went on for a year. I listened each time for about a hour and then the conversation would routinely end with, “catch you later.” Yet, nothing changed for him. At some point I said, “Bob, what are you willing to do to change your life?” He seemed surprised by the question. He never called back. Perhaps a good starting place for you to think about healing, is what old behaviors are you willing to change or what new behaviors are you willing to try to help you get better?
In her book, Listening to Depression: How Understanding Your Pain Can Heal Your Life , psychologist, Lara Honos-Webb, views depression not just as an “illness”, but as a wakeup call; a signal that we have been traveling down paths in our lives that have been unhealthy. She encourages us not to see depression as just a disease, but as an opportunity to change our lives. There is something in us, if we would only listen, that is telling us that we are killing ourselves.
We often don’t listen. So that voice turns up the volume until we get sick with anxiety and depression – or heart disease, hypertension and cancer.
As lawyers, we are experts at looking at problems from an analytical angle. When we turn that powerful lens on ourselves, seeking to “solve” our depression, it just doesn’t work. That’s because much of our distorted thoughts and strategies that got us into trouble with depression, can’t get us out.
After we have been diagnosed with depression, we can evade responsibility for our own recovery. Some time ago, I was in a great deal of pain. I told my therapist that my depression wasn’t going away despite my sincere efforts. I felt punished by my depression. He gently told me, “Dan, you haven’t done anything wrong. You’re doing it to yourself.”
This was a turning point for me in dealing with my depression. When I stopped letting depression victimize me, I began to take responsibility for getting better and started behaving and thinking in more constructive ways. That being said, what constructive steps can lawyers take to deal with their depression?
1. Get help
You can’t handle this by yourself. It’s not your fault. It is a problem bigger than any individual person. There are Lawyer Assistance Programs in most states that can get you started in the right direction, provide resources and help you with referrals. Click here to search by state for a program nearest you. While this advice sounds self-evident, believe me, it is not. Recent statistics reveal that eighty percent of Americans don’t get any help for their depression.
2. Maybe you have to take medication
That’s okay. You may have a chemical imbalance which you need to address. For many, psychotherapy won’t help until they quiet down there somatic complaints (e.g. extreme fatigue, sleep problems) so that they can have the energy and insight to work on their problems. However, “one size doesn’t fit all.” Medication can – and is – over proscribed. I also have a problem with family physician diagnosing depression and recommending antidepressants. Eighty percent of the scripts for antidepressants in this country are written by such doctors. Better idea: go to be evaluated by a well-regarded psychiatrist who specializes in mental health and doesn’t also treat stomach upset, fungus on the feet and the flu. For a fair and balanced review of the pros and cons of medication, check out HELPGUIDE.org, a not-for-profit organization.
3. Negative Thinking
Whether you will need medication or not, you will need to confront your negative thinking with a therapist. You really can’t do this effectively with friends or family alone. A lot of research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective form of treatment for depression. It teaches us that a large part of depression is made up of cognitive distortions. One example is the all-or-nothing thinking approach. Lawyers often think to themselves that they’re either “winners” or “losers” in the law. This is a distortion because the reality is that most lawyers both win and lose in their careers. Check out this excellent website article for a list of other cognitive distortions. I recommend interviewing a couple of therapists before you settle on one.
The value of exercise is widely known: It’s is simply good for everybody. For a person with depression, it becomes not just about a healthy habit, but a critical choice. In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. John Ratey devotes a whole chapter to the importance of exercise in treating depression. Please check this book out. Also check out this short article from the Mayo Clinic about how exercise can help with the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
If you have a spiritual practice, do it. If you don’t, think about starting one. This could include anything from a formal meditation practice, going to Mass or just taking a walk in the woods. A lot of research suggests that people who do have a spiritual practice do better with depression. If you believe in God or a higher power, you can avail yourself of help and support from Someone who is bigger than your depression. If you do not believe in God, maybe you believe in some other form of spirituality you can tap into. Spiritual growth and development, in my opinion, is an important pillar of recovery.
6. Join a support group
I started a lawyer support group in my community and it has been going strong for two years. Such groups can be invaluable in helping you to see that you are not alone and that others share in the very same struggle. Contact a Lawyers Assistance Program in your state. If you don’t feel comfortable being in a support group made up of lawyers, there are plenty of other routes to go. Check out the website run by The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. They run depression support groups meetings in all fifty states.
7. Get educated
Read some good books on the topic of depression. As part of your education, learn about the powerful connection between stress, anxiety and depression. I recommend you read Dr. Richard O’Connor’s, Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness. Dr. O’Connor opines that depression is really about stress that has gone on too long. The constant hammering away of stress hormones on the brain changes its neurochemistry. This can and often does result in anxiety disorders and clinical depression. I list a number of other great books on my website at Lawyers With Depression. The site also offers guest articles, news, podcasts and helpful links for lawyers.
8. Build pleasure into your schedule
As busy lawyers, we have the “I will get to it later” mentality – especially when it comes to things that are healthy for us. We have to jettison that approach. We must begin to take time – NOW – to enjoy pleasurable things. A hallmark of depression is the failure to feel happiness or joy. We need to create the space where we experience and savor such feelings.
9. Restructure your law practice
Nobody likes changes. Lord knows, I don’t. Yet this pointer falls into the category of “what are you willing to do?” Maybe you will have to leave your job. Is this stressful? Yes. Is it the end of the world? No. Maybe you will have to change careers. I have spoken to many lawyers who haven’t been particularly happy with being a lawyer since day one. But they kept doing it because they didn’t know what else to do, the legal profession paid a good buck, they didn’t want to seem like a failure, they were in debt, etc. I am not trying to minimize these very real concerns. However, your good health (as I learned the hard way) has got to reestablish itself as a top priority in your life. I changed the nature and variety of my practice and am the better for it. I do less litigation. As a consequence, I have less stress which has been long known to be a powerful trigger for depression. It can be done.
10. Practice mindfulness in your daily life
A lot of attention has been focused on the use of mindfulness lately as a way to help depression. In mindfulness meditation, we sit quietly, pay attention to our breath and watch our thoughts float by in a stream of our consciousness. We habitually react to our thoughts (e.g. “I will never get this brief done”). In mindfulness meditation, we learn – slowly – to let the thoughts and feelings float by without reacting to them. If such an approach to depression seems far-fetched, read the compelling book, The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, for an excellent primer on how you can incorporate mindfulness into your day. Check out this article written for my website by one of the book’s authors.
In closing, I often tell lawyers to remember to be kind to themselves. When I say this they usually look puzzled – like many a judge who has listened to my oral arguments. They’ve rarely, if ever, thought about it and don’t know how to be kind to themselves. I believe that it first begins with a conscious intention – “I am not going to treat myself poorly anymore.” Such a simple refrain can help us.
Depression is often built upon poor mental/emotional and physical habits. Our inner pain can bring us to the point where we have had enough. It begins to dawn on us that we are worthy of love from ourselves and others and that part of such love involves taking care of ourselves. I hope these suggestions help you on your path.