How to Manage Depression as a Lawyer
In my previous post, I talked about the epidemic of anxiety and depression among lawyers and now we get to the meat: how to help a depressed lawyer. TL:DR – the legal world is an environment that leads to depression. It doesn’t provide meaning, creativity, the chance to build meaningful relationships, the opportunity to be in nature, security, hope, intrinsic values, etc. The good news is that there’s likely nothing wrong with you if you’re a lawyer and you’re depressed. The environment would be enough to make a lot of mentally resilient people depressed. Still, we shouldn’t feel content knowing the causes of depression – we should learn ways to combat it. Here’s how to manage depression as a lawyer.
How to Manage Your Depression as a Lawyer
- Find Meaning In Your Work
- Connect to Activities with Intrinsic Value
- Find Friends
- Become a Better Friend
- Tackle Childhood Trauma or Grief
- Have a Real Life
- Pay Down Debt or Otherwise Secure a Hopeful Future
- Incorporate more joy
Most lawyers hate what they do…and people generally feel what they do is what they are. It naturally follows that they end up hating themselves. – Ally McBeal
Many lawyers hate their job because they find no meaning in their work. If you don’t find meaning in your work, I’m not going to advocate quitting, because that is not practical. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get meaning from your work.
I heard a podcast once where people from various occupations discussed their jobs. It didn’t matter what their jobs were – people were happier when they thought of the positive impacts they were effecting on a day-to-day basis. The janitor saw meaning in cleaning the school so that the kids could have a great environment for learning. The divorce lawyer saw that she was giving one party the freedom to start a new life.
I used to spend a fair amount of time defending my law firm job. It’s not that I felt that I was curing cancer, but I believed that every person or company deserved a good legal defense. And I believed in the cause that we were on.
Whatever you do, it’s likely that there’s something positive about the work. It’s important to think of your work in a positive way so it doesn’t seem like your hours are completely without meaning. And if there is absolutely no positive to your job, then maybe I would recommend quitting.
Humans are creative people, and the practice of law may not offer enough opportunity for some lawyers to express their creative needs. But one’s doesn’t necessarily need to be the source for all one’s creative needs.
So maybe you should start a blog! Ok, that seems a bit myopic, but starting a blog was helpful as a creative outlet for me, and also helped me meet friends.
There are myriad other creative things you could do that don’t cost much money. You could draw, paint, dance, take photographs, sing, play music, cook, journal, or write. I had forgotten than I love to play the piano, and that when I do, it’s easier to let go of my work stress. It’s important to find activities that give you the joy that your work may be sucking out of you.
Early on in my legal career, I read Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, and the search for reconnection led me to returning to church and reaching out to old friends. Even though I stayed in the same area I grew up in, which was also local for my college and law school, it took me a solid five years of effort to feel like I had reliable friends.
I tried online dating, throwing parties, meetups, answering Craigslist personal ads (I have a real hodgepodge of friends), reconnecting with old friends, volunteering, and attending church.
And then after you’ve found people that you think you might like to become REAL friends with, you have to put the onus on yourself to maintain the friendship. I’m going to let you know that there’s a lot of rejection in friend-ing – even more so than in dating.
You have to be the one to reach out, to plan, to follow-up and to keep the connection open. I guarantee you though that once you’ve found the right people and put in the work, it is well worth it.
There is clearly no easy or quick prescription for this. I think lawyers often dismiss confronting their demons because they feel like they have no time. There is always time to start. Also, it doesn’t have to be that time-consuming. A classic 1988 study found that students who wrote their “deepest thoughts and feelings” for 20 minutes a day, four days in a row reported a better mood and less distress. Those who were able to form a narrative on how a negative experience helped the person grow as a person scored the most significant boosts in mental and physical health.
Another way to work on this is by fostering relationships of understanding and support with either friends, a support group, or a trusted therapist.
There’s no easy way to gain status and respect. The Wall Street Journal had a recent article about the lonely burden of teenage girls, whose rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed with the advent of social media. Their prescription for parents seems like good advice even for anyone depressed. Find an identity outside of work- whether it be through hobbies, creative interests. Make pacts to reduce screen time.
Spend time in nature. Or at least get out of the office.
When I was working, I found that even a 5-minute walk around the block, made me feel loads better. And no, I didn’t work in the middle of a field. But even just getting outside my office and walking around a city block surrounded by honking cars made me feel less stress.
It can feel very demoralizing in the early years as an attorney because you really have no idea what’s going on. I think everyone has a little bit of imposter syndrome. And of course if you think you’re an imposter, the big fear is that someone will find out, and fire you.
This becomes a huge problem when you rely on your job for everything – your money, your health insurance, your identity, your future. I think side hustles can be problematic for lawyers – due to the confidential nature of the work – but the benefit of a side hustle to some is that it can provide some hope. If you got fired from your job, you would have a source of income still.
Incorporate more joy.
I know it’s the bane of every depressed person to hear advice like “choose to be happy!” And it’s true that this is not a silver bullet. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t help.
According to Dr. Michael Yapko in his book Depression is Contagious, “[w]hat you experience affects your brain at least as much as your brain affects what you experience.” This is to say, your depressed brain may cause you to view the world a certain way, but your experiences can still affect your brain. Yapko states: [t]he goal, therefore, is to retrain your brain through seeking out and/or creating new experiences for yourself that will stimulate your brain in new, helpful ways.
There are certain habits and modes of thinking that will increase the likelihood of staying depressed. For instance, according to Yapko, “[d]epression increases the need for support, yet decreases awareness of and responsiveness to others’ efforts to support them.” The depression is self-enforcing; it makes it more difficult to cure by blocking the paths that could lead to better health. But you don’t have to let depression win.
Ok maybe your job sucks. But you can still incorporate more joyful activities to stimulate your brain. You can choose to view people optimistically and try to recognize others’ efforts to support you. You can express affection, gratitude, and be a charitable person. I mean, how can it not make you feel a little better if you’re just a better person at the end of all of this?
The party line is, don’t do illegal drugs. And I couldn’t get you any drugs (legal or illegal) even if you wanted them. But there is some promising research about the effect of certain drugs on depression. There’s nothing to be done right now, but watch this space as more is written about promising results from unexpected sources.
As always, for any drugs, talk to a medical provider, not a lawyer who runs a personal finance blog.
I’ve already outlined how my health deteriorated in the last year I was working at a law firm. I had lost my appetite. I had lost a lot of weight. My hair was falling out. I had little interest in performing my previous activities. I was sad and overwhelmed most of the time, and I dreaded waking up. When I wasn’t working, I was worried about working. I found myself getting irritated at any delays in my schedule that might get in the way of my work.
Four months before I left my job, my doctor noted that I met all the criteria for severe depression and anxiety (but note that she didn’t diagnose me with depression or anxiety). My doctor said that it was likely situational and because we were adding more people to my team, maybe the sense of overwhelm would end by itself.
I wanted to at least pay lip service to my health despite my workload. So I made small tweaks like working outside the office, at a coffee shop for some part of the day with a new friend who worked part-time. Before I even learned about these disconnections, I was trying to connect with the outside world, with people, and to have more fun.
And then I quit my job because I just didn’t care anymore. And it’s been six months since the day I left, and I STILL haven’t fixed my appetite. But I don’t feel as hopeless anymore. Friends, nature, exercise, joy, and not having debilitating stress helped a lot. This is my little anecdote to show that many of these tips on how to help a depressed lawyer work to some degree. And even if not, they make life better.
Conclusion- Manage Depression as a Lawyer
And now for the disclaimer: I’m a lawyer, not a doctor. None of this constitutes medical advice.
But I know that with so many lawyers with depression, we cannot stand idly by. If any of these activities can make your life, or the life of a depressed lawyer more bearable, we should at least try.
Please also see the Mental Health Resources page in our menu for more resources on how to help a depressed lawyer.
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