The Dark Side of Success: A Psychiatrist’s Exploration of Depression in the Legal Profession

By Joann Mundin, M.D.

There are significant effects of depression in the legal profession that are pervasive. Lawyer depression can have terrible personal and professional ripple effects for attorneys but also impacts clients, business partners, employees, and staff.

The general population is significantly affected by depression, with 17.3 million persons, or 7.1% of all adults in the US, reporting having experienced a major depressive episode in 2017. But, the proportion of depression among attorneys is considerably higher: according to ALM’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey from 2020, 31.2% of the more than 3,800 respondents report having a depressive disorder. This indicates that compared to the ordinary US adult, lawyers have an approximately three-fold higher risk of developing depression.

Nevertheless, the stigma associated with mental illness keeps lawyers from getting help immediately. This can cause excessive and prolonged distress, making the problem worse over time.

WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF DEPRESSION IN LAWYERS?  

Although there isn’t a single clear explanation for why depression is so common in the legal profession, the following elements probably play a role:

  1. Being a lawyer requires high performance, stress, and stakes. Having to perform under constant pressure while working in a competitive field like law makes lawyers more susceptible to mental health issues.
  2. Attorneys frequently strive for perfection. They need to be high achievers to succeed in their legal careers. When working on a client’s case, this level of perfectionism can be helpful, but it can also lead to ongoing stress.
  3. Lawyers receive legal education to practice law. Nonetheless, a career in law necessitates exceptional management, financial, and communication skills. Few lawyers naturally possess these abilities, and law schools do not adequately prepare lawyers with them
  4. In addition, many lawyers lack the skills necessary for resilience, mental well-being, and self-care. But to deal with the emotional pain and stress that frequently accompany dealing with legal clients, lawyers, and other legal professionals requires these essential skills.
  5. Burnout is a culture that is pervasive in the legal sector. As per the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome brought on by continuous workplace stress that is not managed correctly. Several attorneys experience chronic, intense physical and emotional tiredness and anxiety, which can exhaust them. These signs of legal depression can also coexist with those of lawyer burnout.
  6. Attorneys worry about receiving unequal treatment or being singled out for prejudice due to mental illness. This severe problem keeps many more from seeking therapy and prevents more than half of those with mental illnesses from getting it.
  7. The uncertainties of practicing law can be debilitating, regardless of your level of training or experience. Due to the complexity of the legal profession, some lawyers believe they are incompetent and that if their clients learned of it, they would be fired or barred from practicing law.
  8. Most students entered law school with the hope that they would graduate feeling confident and in charge. The reality is that the profession of law is fundamentally characterized by uncertainty. You are vulnerable to despair unless you can accept that uncertainty. Whether you are a trial lawyer, criminal defense attorney, corporate attorney, or estate planner, this is true.
  9. Legal professionals and staff are also susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome, in addition to first responders and military personnel. When caregivers are repeatedly exposed to the trauma of their patients, secondary PTSD develops. Depression is unavoidable if suitable wellness measures are not implemented. Strangely, the likelihood of secondary PTSD increases with the caregiver’s level of compassion.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION IN LAWYERS?

Depression is characterized as a mood condition that impairs daily functioning, resulting in a lingering sense of despair and loss of interest. It can be lighthearted or intense, short-term or long-term. The causes can vary, as well as the symptoms. Depression can have various reasons, including genetics, biochemistry, environmental or situational variables, personality, etc.

There are several emotional signs of depression in lawyers:

  • Low mood – You may frequently and continuously experience sadness, anxiety, or irritability.
  • Loss of joy – You no longer find enjoyment or interest in the pursuits, hobbies, or even work that used to make you happy.
  • Guilt feeling – You might frequently or inappropriately feel guilty, helpless, or unworthy.
  • Emptiness – You might frequently experience hopelessness, pessimism, or “emptiness.”

There are several physical signs of depression in lawyers:

  • Loss of appetite and/or weight – Unintentional changes in appetite and/or weight might take the form of either an inexplicable hunger or weight gain or a noticeable reduction of appetite and/or weight.
  • Sleep issues – You might have trouble falling asleep, insomnia, or interrupted sleep. On the other hand, depression may also cause frequent sleepiness or over-sleepiness.
  • Cramps or digestive problems – You might experience stomach pains, digestive difficulties, or cramps that go undiagnosed and remain unrelieved despite treatment.
  • Aches or pains – You may experience physical aches or pains in your muscles, joints, or head that have no apparent explanation and do not improve with treatment.
  • Reduced energy or fatigue You may experience extreme tiredness or a lack of energy.
  • Changes in speed or movement – Do you notice any changes in speed while speaking or moving? Do you find it difficult to remain still while you are sitting? If you are getting slower and feel shaky while standing, it might also be a sign of depression.

There are several mental signs of depression in lawyers:

  • Lack of concentration – You might lose concentration and make mistakes in simple day-to-day tasks. You might forget meetings, schedules, and important information and find it difficult to make decisions quickly.
  • Fear of death – You may feel a continuous sense of death. Frequent thoughts of death or suicidal tendencies are red-flag signs of severe depression and should be taken care of immediately.

People facing such issues should ask for help immediately. They can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which offers free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24/7.

HOW LAWYERS CAN SURVIVE AND THRIVE OUT OF DEPRESSION

Here is some advice for lawyers who have or might find themselves in a depressive state of mind:

Talk up

Forget about the stigma that is allegedly associated with mental health problems. Your health and well-being are essential things in the world. You need to identify at least one person you can confide in about the seriousness and breadth of your issues, whether a friend, relative, work colleague, HR representative or someone else. If you endure your suffering in silence, you will not succeed professionally.

Get in touch with a medical or mental health professional

Several businesses offer these services through employee support programs for no cost. Many mental health conditions can be treated and kept under control by medicine, counseling, a combination of the two, or other methods. A qualified specialist can work with you to decide the best course of action based on your unique circumstances.

Choose what you want to be your top priority

Find a means to spend more time with your loved ones. Find even a little time to figure out if exercising improves your mood. Go for it if you want to read books or listen to music. You should put your most critical priorities first, both personally and professionally.

Avoid multitasking

Layers try to do multiple things simultaneously, like other professional experts. But doing so can be harmful for their mind. Being a lawyer, making a conscious effort to stop multitasking can enhance mental wellness. According to research, concentrating on several things simultaneously can harm our brains and negatively impact our mental health. Instead, develop the practice of planning your day so that you can focus on one item at a time.

Learn healthy breathing techniques

Yeah, work on breathing deeply and repeatedly. There are numerous advantages of focused breathing and meditation. It reduces the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body, improves concentration and focus, and improves sleep quality by reducing stress and anxiety levels. Apart from that, it lowers blood pressure in individuals with hypertension and boosts immune system function by reducing inflammation in the body.

Practice being mindful

For lawyers to manage their stress, anxiety, and depression, mindfulness can be a very effective strategy. Regular practice can aid in reducing stress (32%) and depression (29%), according to a study from the University of Western Ontario.

When it comes to mental wellness, timing is essential. The legal profession can encourage a shift toward mental wellness by normalizing and promoting regular mental health check-ins. There are two ways to check-in:

Professional – Getting a checkup from a mental health professional. This is comparable to routine physical examinations by a doctor or dental checkups by a dentist.

Self – Often check in with yourself to evaluate your mental health. It can assist you in developing the habit of taking a step back to assess your mental health. This may serve as a warning that you require expert mental health assistance. For instance, you could begin by reviewing this American Psychiatric Association list.

Show gratitude to the people

Everyone with a mental health issue knows there are good times and bad times. Be thankful for the people and things that make you happy throughout the good times. One of the simplest methods to enhance your mental health is to practice and project thankfulness. It can be as simple as sending a thank you email to someone who went above and beyond to assist you on a project.

CONCLUSION

Never presume that other people are insensitive to or uninformed about your circumstances. Some lawyers emerge from hiding to tell their journeys as mental health has become a more acceptable issue of public debate. Try to follow the advice given above and share your experience with others.

By Dr. Joann Mundin.

 

Dan Lukasik has given over 200 presentations throughout the U.S. on the topics of depression, anxiety, and stress. He tells his own powerful story of his struggles with growing up in a traumatic home with an alcoholic father, overcoming obstacles to become a successful lawyer, diagnose of major depression at age 40, learning to overcome and manage. One on the most difficult aspects of living with depression was dealing with the stigma surrounding his own mental illness. At first hurt and then angered by such stigma he and others encountered, he launched Lawyerswithdepression 15 years ago to educate others about depression, provide resources, and combat the stigma to those who often struggle in a lonely battle against this disease.

Dan’s work on mental health has been featured in The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, on CNN, and NPR, and many other national and international publications. He was recently selected by WebMD to for a video on the importance of working with a therapist throughout one’s life to manage clinical depression. In addition, Dan was chosen by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (“SAMSA”) in Washington, D.C. as their spokesman in a PSA video of someone living successfully with depression. Watch the video. For inquiries, please go to the contact tab at the top of the website homepage.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Success: A Psychiatrist’s Exploration of Depression in the Legal Profession

  1. So glad there’s a blog dedicated to the mental health of lawyers, Joann. I’ve always imagined that it’s a high-pressured job with so much on the table.

  2. Very true about what lawyers suffer these days!!!
    Some of the consequences of lawyer depression can include decreased productivity, missed deadlines, strained relationships with colleagues and clients, and even substance abuse. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of depression and seeking appropriate treatment can help alleviate the negative impact of depression on both personal and professional life.

  3. Very informative blog. Thank you bringing this lawyer point into context and I can relate to this very well as one of my friend is practising law and she often goes by rhis and sometimes seem helpless.
    So I would like to share something helpful in this case, Well if you feel in need of some companionship or someone or somewhere where you are free to vent, I have got you covered with Talk Thru. In my personal experience TalkThru, has been a great digital platform that makes it easier for people to get access to mental health services anywhere, anytime from dedicated professionals so that you can feel emotionally empowered through your wellness journey.
    Hope this might be of some help! Good day!

  4. Very informative blog. Thank you bringing this lawyer point into context and I can relate to this very well as one of my friend is practising law and she often goes by rhis and sometimes seem helpless.
    So I would like to share something helpful in this case, Well if you feel in need of some companionship or someone or somewhere where you are free to vent, I have got you covered with Talk Thru.
    Hope this might be of some help! Good day!

  5. Well if you feel in need of some companionship or someone or somewhere where you are free to vent, I have got you covered with Talk Thru. In my personal experience TalkThru, has been a great digital platform that makes it easier for people to get access to mental health services anywhere, anytime from dedicated professionals so that you can feel emotionally empowered through your wellness journey.

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