The Numbers Say We’re Out There
Lawyers suffer from extremely high rates of depression and other mental health disorders. Estimates for the rate of depressed attorneys range from 2 to 3.6 times the national rate of depression in the U.S. A recent study of lawyer mental health in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that 28% of respondents were experiencing symptoms of depression and 19% were experiencing symptoms of anxiety. Male lawyers are twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.
I’ve seen the numbers. I’m a lawyer. Research is what I do. So you can imagine how confusing it was last summer when I became depressed and my colleagues behaved as if they had never seen anything like this before in a law firm. They had no idea what to do with me. They kept turning to me to figure out all of the potential accommodations.
Not exactly easy to do while you’re in the throws of a moderate depressive episode. (Skip to the end of this page for a list of resources.)
Support Systems Are Hit or Miss
Two partners I have worked with closely were extremely supportive, patient and understanding, but it wasn’t because they had ever been depressed — or at least they never said so to me. They simply have the life experiences and the empathy to be supportive.
Other members of my practice group and throughout the firm were far less supportive. They tolerated my illness because, quite frankly, when I’m well I’m a stellar attorney and they wanted to see if we could make it work and I could get back to billing.
No one ever said anything to me about, for instance, contacting the hotline for depressed lawyers (something that exists in many states) or mentioned that they had overcome similar hurdles in the past. I understand that they aren’t at liberty to discuss other people’s mental health status, but the absence of some kind of formal procedure was surprising to me and made me believe they really hadn’t dealt with struggling colleagues’ difficulties in any kind of strategic way.
To say I felt alone doesn’t do my experience justice.
I was eventually referred to a counselor that the firm has on retainer. Although he is a licensed psychologist, his role is not that of a therapist. Instead, the firm charges him with helping me to figure out 1) what kinds of changes and modifications can be made, 2) what my long range professional goals are and 3) whether we can really make it work. In my case, the answer to question 3 was a resounding, “Sorry Tim Gunn, the answer is no.”
Depressed Lawyers Seem Like Fiction to Me
So why is it that the figures quoted seem inconsistent with what I’ve seen in the workplace? Are depressed lawyers just hiding out?
It could be a matter of accessibility of treatment options. It’s possible that in this sphere it is more likely that one would be quick to seek treatment and join Prozac nation, quickly masking the problem.
But studies show that most people experiencing moderate to severe depression do not seek treatment at all. Additionally, males, who are the majority of attorneys in private practice, are far more likely to act out in ways that we view as irritable, hostile and aggressive when they’re depressed. (So have some sympathy for that partner who just ripped you a new one for missing a critical deadline when you, in fact, handed him a final draft two days ago. He’s hurting you because he hurts. I wish this was a joke.)
Was it merely a lack of empathy that caused my colleagues to feel as though I was experiencing something uniquely disruptive? Could my colleagues simply not see in me what they have been experiencing (admittedly or not) themselves for some time?
The significant stigma on mental health problems goes without saying. Although, if we’re being real here, with statistics like those above, it’s quite absurd to ignore the fact that a critical mass of attorneys are struggling. We’re a sizable enough minority that we could have one another’s back.
But of course, there’s that one other part of the stigma. Many of us internalize its messages and believe we’re at fault or have failed in some way due to our struggles. So we don’t stand up for ourselves.
I imagine the most likely reason for this apparent disconnect is that lawyers are likely high functioning depressives who engage in either strong denial or self-medicate in other ways. In fact, I have engaged in both of these methods myself: by the end it usually turns out a lot like Icarus.
Adding insult to injury, there’s a lot of guilt among lawyers at large law firms who struggle with mental health issues. For one thing, after the recent recession with the glut of attorneys struggling to find well-paying work it feels as if it’s completely unacceptable to complain. We hear and tell ourselves that, “a person who makes a lot of money and has this job should not be having this problem.” Heaven help you if a certain popular law blog gets their hands on your story.
Depressed Lawyers Are All Too Real
Mental illness is not imagined. It is all too real and debilitating — particularly for the knowledge worker.
Yet, lawyers suffer alone and we too often suffer in silence.
If you’re one of the hidden depressed attorneys, know that even if you can’t connect openly with other attorneys, you’re not alone. You can get help and you can get better. And I know that with time we can change the conversation and the culture to better support those among us who hurt. One of these days you’ll be able to say #imnotashamed.