Depression in the Legal Community
Depression in the Legal Community
By Michael Hilgers, M.A., Licensed Professional Counselor
Much has been written about mental health and the legal profession over the past decade. During that time, awareness programs have been launched at the national, state, and local levels. Law schools have hired mental health professionals to assist at-risk students and to manage campaigns aimed at education and prevention of mental health issues. While the United States currently boasts the highest rate of diagnosable mental illness in the world, studies suggest that practicing lawyers experience rates of depression eight to 15 percent higher than the general population. According to one OSHA study, lawyers rank highest for rates of depression and fifth for rates of suicide out of 104 studied occupations.
Numerous studies have sought to identify personality traits that distinguish lawyers from the general population. Not surprisingly, high levels of autonomy, skepticism, perfectionism, and competitiveness are generally found along with low levels of sociability (difficulty initiating intimate relationships) and a tendency to utilize self protective, defensive thinking. The very traits that likely contribute to a successful legal career often make it difficult for many lawyers to acknowledge interpersonal struggles and to reach out for help. High demand positions that have limited control over outcome tend to exacerbate depressive symptoms, as do long, sedentary work hours, working in isolation, and exposure to negative people or events.
Depression in the workplace comes with a hefty price tag. The U.S. Surgeon General reports that lost productivity and absenteeism due to untreated mental health disorders cost American businesses $70 billion annually. In the legal arena, billable hours suffer; quality or thoroughness of work suffers; and interactions with coworkers become strained. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression is associated with more annual sick days and higher rates of short-term disability than any other chronic disease. Despite this, mental illness in the workplace remains largely ignored.
While diagnosing depression or other mental illnesses should be left to those licensed and trained to do so, having a basic understanding of the most common visible symptoms can help increase the potential for early intervention. It is important to remember that depression can manifest in many different ways, which may add to confusion when determining whether to seek help or not. Some individuals may exhibit overwhelming sadness, while others appear emotionally vacant. Anxiety and or physical complaints often accompany depression, which can make diagnosis even more difficult.
The most common symptoms of depression include:
- Disturbance of sleep
- Disturbance of appetite
- Difficulty concentrating or increased indecisiveness
- Diminished interest or pleasure
- Increased irritability
- Increased tendency to withdraw from others or isolate
- Loss of productivity
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Low energy or fatigue
Despite sometimes being difficult to identify, depression is one of the most successfully treated forms of mental illness. One of the most common and effective forms of treatment is talk therapy. Through perspective building, exploring new ways of thinking, and adjustments to lifestyle, talk therapy helps increase both insight and skills that help diminish the impact of depressive symptoms and increase functionality.
Low grade, situational depression can often be effectively self managed and will generally dissipate on its own over time. Self management techniques include:
- Engaging in some type of physical activity each day. Take the stairs if you can’t take a walk.
- Practicing good sleep hygiene. Get a routine and stick with it.
- Avoiding excessive use of alcohol.
- Eating healthy or at least healthier.
- Practicing relaxation exercises. A quick online search will yield many suggestions.
- Telling at least one person in your life that you’re struggling. Ask them to check in on you periodically.
- Reaching out to others. Practice social connectedness.
- Interrupting unproductive ruminating thoughts by starting an activity or engaging someone in conversation.
Moderate to more severe grades of depression may present challenges that are beyond what one can effectively self manage. Significant relationship difficulties or work performance issues are often the impetus for someone reaching out for professional help. A trusted referral is the best way to identify options for outside help, however insurance companies, employee assistance programs, and your local bar association are also resources that can help to identify professionals in your area who may specialize in helping to manage depression. Untreated, depression can derail otherwise successful relationships and careers and in general makes life pretty miserable. With treatment, symptoms can be effectively managed until they abate, and life can resume unhindered by defeating thoughts and behaviors.
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, you are not alone. Please call the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, at 1-800-343-8527. TLAP is a 24-hour confidential crisis counseling and referral program to help lawyers. TLAP can screen you for financial assistance with therapy and medication through the Austin Bar Foundation’s Justice Mack Kidd Fund.