The Washington Post reported that Lawyers ‘outranked’ other professionals on a ‘loneliness scale’ in a survey of more than 1,600 workers, in which they are asked 20 loneliness related questions. Read more here.
A year ago, I started to volunteer at a Church on the East Side of Buffalo, the poorest and most segregated section of town rife with a high crime rate, violence, drug trafficking, and prostitution. And right in the middle of it all is St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy.
St. Luke’s was an abandoned Catholic Church twenty-five years ago that had become empty and useless after the Polish immigrants who built it in 1930 left for the suburbs. Into this void cam Amy Betros, a big woman, with an even bigger smile and hug, who owned a restaurant where college students hung out. Amy decided, moved by something deep inside her, to chuck it all and do something for the poorest of the poor.
So, she sold her restaurant and together with a guy named Norm Paolini, bought the broken-down church. It quickly became a place where people could go to sleep on the church’s floor to get out of the elements and get some hot food. But just as important, that got some food for their souls. They got big servings of hope and seconds if they wished.
St. Luke’s has since grown into a huge community with an elementary school, a food and clothing shelter, and one of two “code blue” places where desperate street people can go to find warmth and a cot to sleep in the transformed for the emergency school cafeteria.
While most of us are so busy with doing that, we have little time for being, the days surrounding major holidays can feel especially overwhelming. Most of us seem to lose touch with our connection to the natural world until we experience a life-changing event that locks that moment down into the month or the season. “The Holiday Season,” with capital letters, is one of those markers that is meant to provide a space for reflection, wonder, and deep joy. Advertisers capitalize on our sentiment through advertisers using images of families or neighbors coming together to cheer up individuals who are portrayed as alone and lonely, if not downright abandoned.
Unfortunately, many lonely people do not have a cheering group of neighbors, friends, or families eager to surprise them with holiday lights, tins of cookies, or invitations to join them for a holiday meal. Loneliness and hopelessness can increase while images of altruistic concern and heartwarming moments seem to be the bar against which all holiday experiences should be measured.
Once the first day of winter arrives, the shortened days and decreased exposure to sunlight generate unexpected feelings of depression for many along with lethargy that comes from the resultant vitamin D production in the body. If you have experienced loss, heartache, or depression, the change in season can send you spiraling deep into a very dark place. Putting on a brave face for others can be especially difficult when the world is blasting us with images of group hugs and the memory of your final hug with someone you love is all that you can think about.
No matter what the cause of your holiday lows might be, here are ten tips that might help you cope during this season:
Don’t completely isolate yourself from other people. Social connection has great healing power – attend a faith-based service, even if you are not committed to a particular religion, just to experience the positive feelings of being surrounded by others.
Allow yourself space to acknowledge any losses, despair, or hurt you are feeling, but do not let yourself use the loss as an excuse to escape through alcohol or other addictive substances.
If a particular ritual is just too painful to try and continue this year, accept that there are limits to what you are capable of doing and forgive yourself for that.
Don’t allow yourself to use any holiday-related time off from work as an excuse to hide from the world – stick to as regular a schedule as you can.
Don’t binge eat or binge drink – while these may offer a sense of temporary escape, they are not healthy coping methods.
If you’re recovering from a broken relationship, it’s especially important not to dwell on the past, an imagined future, or thoughts of revenge. Make sure that your ex’s contact information is wiped from your phone to help you avoid any temptation to make any desperate attempts at reaching out.
If you’re recovering from grief at the loss of a loved one, create a special new ritual that honors the person who is no longer there. Light a special candle and offer a silent or spoken tribute to this person. Add a special decoration to your collection and display it in this person’s honor. Choose a special recipe that was always a favorite and prepare it each year – saying a special prayer in their honor before consuming it.
Reflect on what has brought the most joy to you during this season in past, happier years. Force yourself to engage in this aspect of the holiday with as much energy and commitment that you can muster. If it was the lights of the season, throw your heart into decorating your home with the lights that always brought a smile! If it was the cookies, bake your heart out – even if you aren’t the most talented chef, enjoy doing something that your loved one would have enjoyed seeing happen. If it was the carols and songs of the season, let the CDs, Sirius, or Pandora serenade the silence with the songs this person loved.
Remind yourself that at this time of year, the shortest day falls on the last day of autumn. Winter may bring the coldest weather, the deepest hibernation of animal life, the barren trees may stand out starkly against the winter sky, but remind yourself that once the first day of winter has arrived, the days are once again growing in length and the nights are beginning to shorten. This is a magic time when we can feel the change in the natural world on a very deep level. The feelings of depression or deep grief you feel may ebb and flow like a tide, but remind yourself that there is a natural rhythm in life and it truly is always darkest before the dawn.
Honor your feelings, but don’t allow yourself to get so wrapped up in despair or hopelessness that you retreat fully from the world around you. When we let ourselves get sucked into a place of abject despair and darkness, we are sacrificing the potential for joy that others might bring you – or that you, yourself, could bring others.
If your holiday season is a time of depression, grief, or hurt, know that you are not alone. Others also are suffering as the world blares entreaties to be “merry and bright,” but sadness and heartache are filling your heart. Keep active over this period, show up in life, and remind yourself that each day that you do, it’s one less day you’ve given depression the power to take from your life.
By Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., LPC, LMHC, NCC. Susan is professor and chair of the Counseling, Adult and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University. She is a licensed counselor whose focus includes working with individuals and families facing transitions. Her academic research explores development over the lifespan with a strong focus on women’s relationships and women’s developmental transitions. She is currently president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, a division of the American Counseling Association.
This article discusses a recent study analyzing the effects increased exposure to smart devices can have on mental health. Predictably, an unhealthy amount of screen time increases one’s sense of isolation and loneliness while limiting their social interactions (dating, spending time with friends etc.). Read the article here.
The latest installment of The Struggle, a series examining some of the mental health issues students encounter at Law School. Read it here.
Blogger John Folk-Williams writes, “The words I hear when I’m depressed are limited, negative and decidedly lacking in color, but they can all too easily block my mind and feelings. I’m stuck on “I can’t” when I want to do something important to me.” Read the Blog
Blogger Carol Richard writes, “Have you ever had those times when the last thing you wanted to do is interact with another person [when depressed]? Since isolation can become fuel to the depression – I take steps to not let it take hold of my life.” Read the Blog
Many people describe depression as a kind of intense grief. It is a deep sadness. It’s like heartbreak, agony and despair all at once. I think depression is worse than grief. Grief usually has an identifiable cause. There are stages. People understand why you are sad. It eases with time.
I find that depression is more like death. In every depressive episode, something is lost. Sometimes it’s the belief that I’m not that sick. Sometimes it’s a dream. Sometimes it’s a concrete plan or goal. Sometimes it’s who I desperately wanted and expected myself to be. Sometimes it’s a harmful lie I’ve told myself, or that someone told me. Sometimes what dies, needed to go. Most times, it seems I would have been perfectly fine without the loss. I would smile more. I would know how I spent the hours in my day. I would see fewer doctors. When people ask me how I am doing, my response of “fine” would only be a lie thirty percent of the time. Like most people, right?
I have lived with a depressive condition since I was a teenager, although I didn’t have a name for it until my 20s. I don’t know how many lows I’ve had — excluding the two suicidal bouts. I don’t count how many times I’ve been sad and desperate for months. I don’t make a list of what I’ve lost.
I do, however, remember when I lost my faith.
Like many people who are raised in a religious environment, I was taught to believe that God loves me and protects me. I was taught that God punishes sin, and rewards those who are faithful. I learned about my religion by studying Holy Scriptures. I prayed. I worshipped. This was supposed to strengthen my faith. It was supposed to make me happy.
For many years, it did. I cherished Sundays spent in church — singing, kneeling and feeling inspired by the words of the preachers. My friends were made up of the other people I met in church. We volunteered at Vacation Bible School for the children, the food drive and tutoring programs.
Meanwhile, I prayed for peace. In my sleepless nights, I asked God to save me, help me and rescue me from my sadness. Just make it all better. I also heard the messages that my faith told me about depression: that I was be too blessed to be stressed; that depression was a lie from “the enemy”; that suicide is an unforgiveable sin. Somewhere between my unanswered prayers and the realization that I could not worship myself into happiness, my faith died.
I kept going to church. I kept saying the words of the prayers. I still sang the songs. I’m a minister — I have to. But I was a fraud. I stopped talking with God. What could I say to the One who was not delivering me? What praise did I have? I could list my blessings, but I could not feel gratitude. I hid my faithlessness like a bobby pin in an updo. Everything looked composed on the outside, but I was barely holding it together. I was not faithful or pious. I felt abandoned and alone.
As my depression worsened, I learned more about it. I read books. I found doctors who understood my condition. I stopped fearing medication. I met other people who struggled like me. We learned to hear sorrow in one “hello,” and how to sit with each other without words. I began to believe that depression was not a personal weakness or failure. By accepting it, I began to manage it. When I felt joy, I appreciated it all the more. I started to trust the healing process. But I missed my faith in God, religion and worshipping community.
Oddly enough, death is the purview of the religious. We call chaplains into hospital rooms. When someone dies, we go to the altar. Mourners bend their backs and wail. The spirituals express deep sorrow. We gather together with large meals. We don’t pretend like people aren’t in pain. In those times, we understand when people cannot praise God. We only ask people to be honest with God. And we don’t leave them alone. This is exactly what my depressed self needs: tears, music, good food, raw honesty, community. The same faith that demonizes my depression also teaches me how to have faith in the midst of it.
I lost the faith I once had. I stopped believing that God only loved me if I was happy and peaceful. I also gave up on the idea that depression was punishment or isolation from God. I can’t enjoy the same songs. I cannot bear the same sermons. That faith is gone. Just like the hours, weeks or months I lose to melancholy. And my incomplete plans. Or the image I’d like to have of myself.
In these moments when death prevails, I appreciate that so many religions have an understanding of life after death. Regrowth, reincarnation, resurrection. They all understand that there is a finality to death. We don’t get back what we lost. We get something or someone new.
My new faith is a deep trust that God is present with me and understands how I feel — especially when no one else can. I no more blame God for my sadness, than I credit God for happy days. This faith tells God how I really feel knowing that an offer of my true self is worship. I appreciate songs of sorrow more. I dance only when joyful. I am upheld by church community that can linger in pain without moving to fix it.
This faith is different than what died. But it’s just as holy.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on October 13,2012.
I’ve written a lot on stress, anxiety and depression in the legal profession, but not about the judiciary. There has been much commentary, research and Law Journal articles about what ails law students and attorneys — but not about judges.
I guess that’s not surprising. In my work, I have spoken with scores of judges from all over the country. It’s a noble, important calling in life. But it’s also very stressful, demanding and . . . lonely.
Isolation, Loneliness & the Judiciary
In an article for Judicature magazine, psychiatrist Isaiah Zimmerman culled through twenty years of notes he accumulated from treating state and federal judges. Here are the voices of the judges in their own words:
“Before becoming a judge, I had no idea or warning, of how isolating it would be.”
“Except for those very close, old friends, you cannot relax socially.”
“Judging is the most isolating and lonely of callings.”
“The isolation is gradual. Most of your friends are lawyers, and you can’t carry on with them as before.”
“When you become a judge, you lose your first name!”
“It was the isolation that I was not prepared for.”
“After all these years on the bench, the isolation is my major disappointment.”
“The Chief Judge warned me: ‘You’re entering a monastery when you join this circuit.’”
“I live and work in a space capsule – alone with stacks of paper.”
“Your circle of friends certainly becomes smaller.”
“Once you get on the appellate bench, you become anonymous.”
These weren’t isolated comments or small pockets of pedestrian sadness. Dr. Zimmerman notes that about 70% of the judges he interviewed came up with these observations on their own.
There are several things that contribute to a sense of judicial loneliness. The Code of Judicial Conduct imposes restrictions on judicial behavior both in and out of the courtroom. Judges must avoid the appearance of impropriety and thus must be cautious and keep an appropriate distance and bearing at social and bar events. There are good reasons to have these restrictions, but if a judge isn’t careful to live a balanced life, they can help trigger a profound sense of lonesomeness.
Loneliness isn’t just emotionally painful; it’s also dangerous to your health on multiple levels. According to an article by psychologist, Hara Estroff Marano, writes:
“Evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships are not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory.”
Given the pressures and isolation of the job, judges need to recognize the dangers associated with loneliness: unhappiness, discontent, health problems and perhaps . . . depression.
Judges and Depression
Judges are supposed to be problem solvers in black robes; not human beings with psychological problems of their own.
Given the position that judges occupy in our society, the stigma around disclosure to others –and perhaps getting treatment for clinical depression — is much, much greater.
One psychiatrist I know who treats judges told me that judges request very early or very late weekday or weekend appointments. Moreover, they ask not to be scheduled before or after another lawyer or judge and pay in cash so as not to attract attention or leave a paper trail.
For the first ten years of my career, much of my practice was spent litigating cases in state and federal courts in New York City. One of my best friends from those days is now a judge. When I decided to go public with my depression eight years ago by writing an article for Trial magazine, my friend called me for dinner to catch up on things. He wanted to know how I was feeling and expressed concern about my plans to go public about my depression.
“Dan, why can’t you write the article anonymously,” my friend said. “But that’s the problem, isn’t it?” I replied. “Why should I have to write such an article anonymously? What do I have to be ashamed of? Depression is an illness no different than diabetes or heart disease. Would I write an article about those illnesses . . . anonymously?”
We kept in contact with dinners and phone calls over the next eight years, but over time our conversations centered less on my depression and well-being and more on his. You see, my friend the judge disclosed to me that he was suffering from depression and had tried to commit suicide some years before.
I think he felt he could trust me. Moreover, I think my disclosure gave him implicit permission to talk about his pain and struggles; a hurt only his therapist and wife knew of. He spoke of the loneliness of his job and how he missed the collegiality of his old large firm. But, he said that on the balance, he’d rather be a judge and didn’t regret his change in vocation; a move from the courtroom to the chamber. He liked his job, enjoyed the intellectual challenge and the chance to do justice.
The statistics on lawyer depression are deeply troubling. They suffer from depression at a rate twice that (20%) of the general population. As such, about 200,000 of this nation’s 1 million lawyers are struggling with depression right now. No studies have been done on judicial depression.
There are 1,774 federal level judges in the U.S. Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of judges; approximately 350 judges across America are suffering from depression. Even though there haven’t been any studies of judicial depression, why would we expect the 20% rate to be any different than that found with attorneys?
I couldn’t find any statistics on how many state judges there are in the U.S. New York State has 1,250. Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of these judges, approximately 250 of the Empire State’s judiciary are suffering from depression.
This isn’t sadness or burnout, but true clinical depression. Sometimes, we confuse being down in the dumps with depression. They’re really not the same thing – not even close. Here’s how psychologist Richard O’Connor, best-selling author of the book Undoing Depression, distinguishes it:
“Everyone knows what depression feels like. Everyone feels the blues at times. Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life. There is a connection between the blues and clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”
Perfectionism is also an indicator for depression. In his article Even Judges Get the Blues, Judge Robert L. Childers writes:
“Because of the weight of public expectation, judges generally feel that they should be perfect. Not only do they feel that they should be fair, impartial, and make the right decision 100 percent of the time, but the public expects this of judges as well, as do the lawyers who practice before them. This can create undo pressure for judges and, consciously or unconsciously, keep judges from admitting or recognizing the signs of debilitating disease.”
An article from the ABA Journal, Perfectionism, Psychic Battering’ Among Reasons for Lawyer Depression, states: “Lawyers [and judges] are taught to aim for perfection, to be aggressive and to be emotionally detached. They ‘intellectualize, rationalize and displace problems on others’ . . .. They don’t take direction particularly well. They tend to have to have fairly elaborate denial mechanisms. And they tend to challenge anything they’re told.” In another article from the ABA Journal, it notes that when combined with depression, perfectionism makes it harder for a person to seek help. And in the worst case scenario, leads to suicide.
Loneliness & Depression
Depression is a multifaceted illness that has several different causes – some genetic, some physical and some emotional. In the depths of my depression, I felt very alone – like I was trapped at the bottom of a dark well.
Many with depression isolate themselves because it’s painful to be around others. I would hang out at Starbucks and do my work. I didn’t want others I knew to engage me; I didn’t want others to see the pain I was desperately struggling with.
I’ve found that loneliness and depression often travel the same road. This creates a lot of problems because the two can feed off one another.
According to psychologist Dr. Reena Sommer:
“Depression is a problem that often accompanies loneliness. In many cases, depressive symptoms such as withdrawal, anxiety, lack of motivation and sadness mimic and mask the symptoms of loneliness. In these cases, people are often treated for depression without considering the possibility that loneliness may be a contributing and sustaining factor in their condition.”
Generally, the debilitating symptoms of depression can usually be managed with antidepressant medication. But when the underlying loneliness is ignored or overlooked, the depressive-like symptoms will probably continue. Unless the reasons for loneliness and depression are separated out, it can easily turn into a ‘chicken and egg’ situation where depression leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads to depression.”
Turning It Around
While depression might not be our fault, it is our responsibility to get better. We need to start behaving and thinking in constructive ways. Here’s some food for thought for those on the bench:
- Get help. You can’t handle this by yourself. It is a problem bigger than any individual person. The ABA’s Commision on Lawyer Assistance Programs created a Judicial Assistance Initiative. Reach out to them and they can get you pointed in the right direction.
- You may have to take antidepressant medication to help you. That’s okay. You may have a chemical imbalance that you need to address. For many, psychotherapy alone won’t help until they quieted down their somatic complaints — e.g. fatigue from sleep problems – so that they can have the energy and insight to work on their problems.
- Whether you need medication or not, you will need to confront your negative thinking with a therapist. A lot of research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective form of treatment for depression. Interview a couple therapists before you settle on one.
- Exercise. The value of exercise is widely known: It’s simply good for everybody. For a person with depression, it becomes not just about a healthy habit, but a critical behavior and habit – they absolutely need to work out. In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey devotes a chapter to the importance of exercise in alleviating depression. Please check this book out.
- If you have a spiritual practice, do it. If you don’t, think about starting one. This could be anything from a formal meditation practice, going to Mass, or walking the woods. A lot of research suggests that people who have a spiritual practice do better with depression recovery. If you believe in God or a higher power (I am Catholic), 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, are very important pillars of recovery. Two books from my tradition include Seeing beyond Depression by Father Jean Vanier and Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach by Sister Kathryn James Hermes.
- Get educated. Read some good books on the topic. As part of your education, learn about the powerful connection between stress, anxiety and depression. On this subject, I recommend Dr. Richard O’Connor’s Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness. Dr. O’Connor suggests 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/or depression.
- Build pleasure into your schedule. Judges, like all those in the legal profession, are busy and have the “I will get to it later” mentally – especially when it comes to things that are healthy pleasures. We have to jettison this approach to how we live our days. We must begin to take time – now – to enjoy pleasurable things and people. A hallmark of depression is the inability to feel happiness or joy. We need to create the space where we can experience and savor good experiences and feelings.
- Practice mindfulness. In mindfulness meditation, we sit quietly, pay attention to our breath, and watch our thoughts float by in a stream of consciousness. Normally, we immediately react to our thoughts (e.g. “I am losing my mind with all of these deadlines”). With mindfulness practice, we can begin – slowly – to let the thoughts and feelings float by without reacting to them. If such an approach to depression seems far-fetched, read the best-selling book The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, for an excellent primer on how you can incorporate mindfulness into your day.
- Remember to be kind to yourself. It sounds so simple. I tell this to depressed lawyers and judges all the time and they usually look puzzled. They often admit that they have 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 on poor mental, emotional and physical habits. We must learn to acknowledge that we are worthy of love from others and ourselves and that part of such love involves taking better care of ourselves.
- Spend time outside and in nature. We humans forget that we are part of nature and the animal kingdom. We need fresh air and sunshine. Even more so when the darkness of winter strikes. If you live in a part of the country with long winters, load up on vitamin D and consider using a light box to help you.
If you or a judge you know might be suffering from loneliness and/or depression, please forward this article to them. Here’s a list of depression’s symptoms and a self-test from the Mayo Clinic.