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Lawyers and Depression

Nov 20, 2017 | by Stacey Burke
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While it is affectionately known as “the most wonderful time of the year,” the holiday season can actually bring on strong depression symptoms for a lot of us. Lawyers are in no way immune to the perils of depression; and in fact, many studies indicate the legal profession is especially susceptible to depression and suicide. Lawyers have the fourth-highest suicide rate by profession, after dentists, pharmacists, and doctors, according to the most-recent numbers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These symptoms either start or escalate during law school. Depression rates among law students are 8 to 9% before the start of school; after just one semester that number increases to 27%, and it goes up to 34% after three years. Equipped with this data, one would think law schools would undertake organized efforts to help students with their mental health, but unfortunately that is just not the case. And what starts and/or festers during law school is only compounded as students graduate and experience the added pressures of the working world, personal life issues, law school loan payments, finances, and more.

A recent study of nearly 13,000 practicing lawyers commissioned by the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that between 21-36% of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers. Approximately 28% struggle with depression, 19% with anxiety, and 23% with stress. You can read or download the entire 73-page report here.

Depression is so common among attorneys that New York lawyer Dan Lukasik has devoted an entire website to it since 2007.  A recent article began with an excellent question, “How do lawyers know if they are depressed because they don’t like practicing law, or they don’t like practicing law because they are depressed?” While the article poses many interesting points, in my opinion the cause may not matter in the moment – acknowledging that you are depressed and reaching out to someone, anyone, for help is the best first step.

I have personally lost multiple people close to me to suicide, and consider it an increasing and serious epidemic. During law school, I dated a wonderful man who graduated college at the top of his class before attending law school. He was attractive, smart, had close friends, and was physically in good shape. We transitioned from dating back to being friends before law school ended, and each of us ventured out into the legal world after graduation. Once he graduated law school, though, he never really found his place in the working world. I found out he shot himself just a few years after graduation.

One of my closest friends committed suicide during law school. He was always surrounded by friends, had an active and busy social life, and secured an ideal clerkship with a great criminal defense firm in town. He was the one who always gave me the biggest and best bear hugs when I needed them most. I was several years ahead of him and already out of school when he went missing. We searched muddy, wet portions of Memorial Park with Texas Equusearch looking for him, for anything that might let us know what was going on. Ultimately, the credit card he had provided for a hotel room was charged, and he was found shot to death in his room by his own hand.

Symptoms of Depression

As successful people, lawyers will look for any other, more logical reason for their depression symptoms – anything but mental health. We look to thyroid issues, hormone problems, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even cancer as the real cause of our sadness, lack of energy, or other such symptom. As we make the time for and wade through healthcare providers looking for some other cause, we only grow more frustrated, which fuels our depression. Some of the most common symptoms to look for in yourself and those around you include:

  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Lack of enjoyment for activities you used to love
  • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • Angry outbursts, irritability, or frustration, even over small matters
  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased cravings for food and weight gain
  • Anxiety, agitation, or restlessness
  • Slowed thinking, speaking, or body movements
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
  • Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, or suicide attempts

You Are Not Alone – How To Reach Out

I have had days when I could not get out of bed. I have canceled plans citing “being sick” or “a family emergency” because my anxiety was too high to handle going anywhere – even to lunch with friends. I have foregone professional opportunities for no reason other than my own mind getting in the way of my success. Being an achiever does not prevent you or anyone else from also being depressed and/or anxious.

If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255. Meeting with someone face-to-face can be a huge help, so look at which mental health providers your insurer covers in your area. If speaking to someone in person seems too daunting (and believe me it can), there are now apps and services that allow for virtual therapy like Talkspace, Therapist Finder, and Woebot.

And remember, we are all in this together. 

Sidebar stacey e burke About Stacey Burke

Stacey E. Burke is both an experienced trial lawyer and law firm business consultant. She works with lawyers and law firms around the world to improve their business development, marketing, and infrastructures.

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