Arizona was hit hard by illness this winter. Several people at my law firm came down with cold and flu-type illnesses. Even I got sick; but thankfully, for my colleagues’ sake, I’m not contagious.
I have depression.
This doesn’t make me unique. A 2016 study by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that 28 percent of lawyers have mild to severe depression. That’s 336,000 lawyers! Additionally, 46 percent of lawyers reported concerns about depression sometime during their legal career. Of the lawyers who experience depression, 60 percent of them also have anxiety.
The Lawyer Depression Pandemic
The World Health Organization states that depression is a global epidemic, with 10 percent of the population suffering from it. Dan Lukasik, the founder of Lawyers with Depression, says depression is at “catastrophic” and “pandemic” levels in the legal industry.
I asked Lukasik “the chicken or the egg” question about lawyers and depression. He referred me to the work of Martin Seligman, who wrote the book “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.” Seligman’s book includes a chapter titled, “Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy.” In it, he says that having a “pessimistic explanatory style” is a benefit in an adversarial profession because it helps you identify problems, but it can also cause significant mental and physical problems.
Also, Susan Daicoff, author of “Lawyer Know Thyself: A Psychological Analysis of Personality Strengths and Weaknesses,” describes the lawyer personality as being ambitious, perfectionistic and achievement-oriented, all of which can be contributors to depression.
Lukasik told me being in a state of “chronic perpetual stress” — constantly experiencing the fight-or-flight state — is the “definition of a legal career.” The human body wasn’t meant to continuously face “five-alarm fires.” This can lead to or exacerbate existing problems with depression.
Depression causes huge problems for lawyers. Concentration is a tool of our trade and depression has a dramatic effect on energy and productivity. I know when I’m depressed because I’m uninspired and unmotivated, and I’m easily distracted and irritated. It got so bad I was tested for ADD (which it turns out I don’t have; I was just having a flare-up of depression and anxiety).
What Should a Lawyer With Depression Do?
Depression is an illness, and yet it comes with a stigma, especially in the legal industry where you do not want to reveal vulnerability or weakness to your firm or clients — and definitely not to the opposition. We’re fierce, strong problem-solvers! But we’re human, too. So what should you do if you suspect you’re in the significant and substantial minority of lawyers who experience depression?
Lukasik recommends that you start with a proper evaluation and educate yourself about depression. Begin by seeing your family medical doctor for a full physical. They’re trained to screen patients for depression, and you might have medical issues that are causing or contributing to your depressed mood. (When’s the last time you had a full physical anyway?)
In regards to learning about depression, there are wonderfully informative books, websites and other resources focused on the topic, including a documentary Lukasik produced with the Erie County Bar Foundation specifically about lawyers and depression.
If it’s determined that you have depression, there are multiple ways to treat it (therapy, medication, support groups, self-care, mindfulness, etc.). There is no one single way to deal with it, there’s just what’s best for you. Lukasik conducts a weekly support group in Buffalo, N.Y., specifically for lawyers with depression, where everyone understands the lawyer lifestyle and its pressures.
If you’re interested in books that may help with depression, Lukasik recommends “The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness” and “Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness.”
I’m not going to lie, having depression sucks. When it hits, I feel tired and moody for no apparent reason and it’s frustrating that I can’t just “snap out of it.” The good news is, it’s an illness that can be managed through multiple modalities with the overall focus being on self-care.
I’m lucky that I work at a firm that affords me a lot of freedom as long as my work gets done. It was nice the other week, when I was dealing with a depression flare-up, to sit on the floor of my office with the contract I’m reviewing for a client in one hand while, with my other hand, I was petting my dog.