A month ago, I logged into Facebook and saw a suicide note. Through the comments, I found out my friend had passed. I remembered the last suicide I had heard of -a young lawyer. Lawyers and mental illness are inextricably linked. While some commentators have tried to explain why attorneys suffer from depression, I wasn’t convinced so I looked into it myself. Why is there an epidemic of lawyer anxiety and depression? Here are my thoughts.
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Frasier : God, I hate lawyers.
Niles : Me too. But they make wonderful patients: they have excellent health insurance and they never get better.
Table of Contents
We Need to Talk About Lawyer Suicides
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that lawyers ranked fourth in proportion of suicides by profession (adjusted for age), right behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians. Lawyer suicides are a constant news story, particularly among lawyers.
There are varying theories as to why lawyers are prone to suicide. According to the American Psychiatric Association and numerous other sources, depression is the most likely trigger for suicide. Dr. Andy Benjamin of the University of Washington found that, by the time students graduated law school, 40 percent are suffering from depression. This doesn’t improve when they enter the legal world. According to the American Psychological Association, attorneys are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-attorneys.
A. Why are Lawyers So Depressed?
B. The Causes of Depression
C. The Causes of Depression in Lawyers
Why Are Lawyers Depressed? The Epidemic of Lawyer Anxiety and Depression
After learning of my Facebook friend’s suicide, I realized how little I knew about depression. Searching the internet didn’t seem to provide the answers I was seeking. People just seemed to make stuff up (how now Internet?). Instead, I read two fascinating books about depression. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari and Depression Is Contagious: How the Most Common Mood Disorder Is Spreading Around the World and How to Stop It by Michael Yapko. (Side note: these books are phenomenal and fun to read. I recommend everyone read them).
For a long time, I believed that depression was a genetic disease caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s just a misfire in our brains and if you can readjust the brain chemicals, then everything will be fine.
But lawyers are much more likely to suffer depression than the general population. There is no reason why lawyers, as a group, would have more chemical imbalances than the general population. In fact, whenever articles would discuss depression in the legal field, they always discuss lifestyle.
The Causes of Depression
We often talk about depression as something we can’t control or change (“it’s a disease”). Yet WebMD lists depression risk factors such as death or loss of a loved one, conflict, abuse, stressful life events, or other illnesses.
I realize it’s potentially controversial to say that there’s anything that can be done for depression besides meds and therapy. But this is about helping people. It’s more important that people do whatever they can to help themselves.
When we talk about lawyer depression, we are talking about the stresses of legal life.
There is no biological defect that disproportionately affects lawyers – it’s how lawyers live their lives. Depression is a complicated problem. If depression is, even in part, caused by a stressor, then medication isn’t going to solve the problem. When we talk about curing or alleviating that depression, we must talk about alleviating the stresses. But before we can talk about relief, we have to know what stresses cause the depression.
When genetics, biology, and stressful life situations come together, depression can result. . . If the stress is short-lived, the body returns to normal. But when stress is chronic . . . changes in the body and brain can be long-lasting.
So, for some suffering from depression, stopping the chronic stress trigger could be restorative. And that makes sense, because even if meds made you feel better, the depression will return if the stress still exists. Rather than being a brain misfire, depression is your body’s SOS signal. Your bod is frantically trying to tell you to end the stress before your body and brain are forever changed.
But what kinds of stress trigger depression? Hari, in Lost Connections, leans into this lifestyle connection. He posits that, in addition to genetics, the lack of seven “connections” to biological needs increases the likelihood of depression. They are lack of meaningful work, isolation, chasing the wrong values, unresolved childhood trauma, lack of status and respect, disconnection from the natural world, and disconnection from a hopeful or secure future.
The life of a depressed lawyer fits neatly into Mr. Hari’s framework. Read the book for the research, but I will discuss how these disconnections are prevalent in legal life.
Lack of Meaningful Work
Students enter law school with big dreams of defending the oppressed and making the world better. The reality is more likely extremely mundane and repetitive, while also being extremely stressful. No one dreamed ofsSpending 70-80 hours a week working at a stressful and boring job after spending three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a degree. And after all this mind-numbing and stressful work, cases can settle suddenly and unexpectedly. Appeals take years to resolve. Even if you believe you are doing meaningful work, there are always more people who need help. It can seem like one is constantly working, with nothing lasting to show for it.
Loneliness is the epidemic of our modern times – and it obviously also affects lawyers. A lot of people don’t like or trust lawyers. It probably isn’t a surprise that a lot of lawyers don’t like or trust each other. I remember a summer associate asking me once, to whom he could confide. In his mind, his colleagues were all land mines, and confiding in the wrong one could be a terrible error. It was a very pessimistic outlook, and sadly, one that many lawyers share.Despite lawyers always being connected to work, their paranoia /fear causes real loneliness in the office.
This fear of confiding in others may extend to mental health professionals. Some posit that lawyers don’t want to appear that they are not fully in control of their lives. Still, there’s a very practical reason why lawyers might not seek help. Seeking help might mean that they can’t work or could get disbarred.
Additionally, lawyers work so much that it’s hard to find time to connect with their real friends. When one thinks of their time in 6-minute increments, as many law firm attorneys do, it’s hard to justify “wasting time” with friends and family. Instead, you could be billing and earning hundreds and thousands of dollars (for your firm).
Chasing the Wrong Values
Lawyers, money, and prestige are closely correlated. The legal world emphasizes external value. Students generally start law school with lower rates of substance and alcohol abuse and strong internal senses of self. But law school emphasizes external values like status, comparative worth and competition. Some studies indicate that this focus on external values twists people’s psyches and law students graduate significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility.
According to Hari, seeking materialism/money or extrinsic values (such as prestige/the approval of others) can lead to depression. It is impossible to maintain your self-esteem when you base your self-esteem on moving targets like material goods acquired and the approval of others.
Unresolved Childhood Trauma/Grief
Mr. Hari noted that those who suffer from depression are much more likely to have unresolved childhood trauma. Thus, some people diagnosed as depressed are merely in the grieving process.
Of course, it’s not obvious that lawyers would be more likely to have grief or childhood trauma than people in other professions. Many people come to the field of justice because of their childhoods. Lawyers have the ability to defend the poor, underprivileged, the wrongly convicted. They often also have roles in writing legislation and changing the government. This desire to help the downtrodden may have its roots from some experience in their past.
Further, in keeping with lawyers’ busy schedules, lawyers may brush over any traumatic experiences, rather than deal with them. I knew a lawyer who had postponed his OWN wedding a few times, just for his work. If you can’t take time for your own special day, you probably aren’t making time to deal with the hard issues in your life as well.
Lack of Status or Respect
I’ve said repeatedly through this post that lawyers command respect. And while that’s often true on a macro level, it’s not always true on a micro level.
Your law school rank (how you compare with your classmates) determines what kind of opportunities you may have. In legal life, lawyers are competing with one another for partnerships, clients, or jobs. Further, clear distinctions separated partners, associates, staff attorneys, paralegals, and secretaries. Though we certainly worked with people at all ranks, each group tended to socialize among themselves. This distinct pecking order can lead to loneliness.
Disconnection from the Natural World
Forest bathing i.e. spending time in a natural environment has caught on as a way to relieve stress and improve one’s mental health. Attorneys typically work indoors. They spend an extraordinary number of hours in an office staring at a computer or smart phone, traveling in cars or planes, and/or appearing in courtrooms or other offices.
Attorneys, often so committed to their jobs, neglect to take care of their own health. In one account of a lawyer suicide, the author notes:
Of all the heartbreaking details of his story, the one that continues to haunt me is this: The history on his cellphone shows the last call he ever made was for work. Peter, vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness, had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call.
Lack of Security
The legal world’s obsession with perfection can also lead to depression. Stress is a lifestyle for attorneys. Recruiter Harrison Barnes outlines the stress as follows:
All along the way, you are under a microscope where people are always waiting for you to make a mistake—miss a deadline, make a typo, upset a client, upset someone senior to you and more. In large law firms, even small mistakes can have fatal repercussions to your career.
He notes the following terrifying example:
An attorney’s entire career can be ruined by making a single small mistake. I once saw a woman lose her job after working 3,000 hours a year for over ten years in a law firm because she forgot to get a client to sign a form. The results of this were catastrophic, and the client ended up losing the case due to this attorney’s error.
Lack of Financial Security
According to Alex Yufik, clinical rehabilitation coordinator for the State Bar of California’s Lawyer Assistance Program, besides depression, anxiety, and job stress, common contributing factors for lawyer suicide include unfulfilled expectations and a perceived sense of failure.
Some studies have shown that the mental and psychic toll of heavy student debt can mirror the stages of grief. Though many enter law optimistically, high student loan debts and a limited number of high-paying jobs catch many lawyers off-guard.
Lack of Hope
The emotional nature of legal work can lead to pessimism for the future. According to clinical psychologist Rachel Fry:
Lawyers tend to score higher in pessimistic thinking, which often results in higher success rates and becoming a better lawyer. However, this type of thinking is also highly correlated with depression.
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that if you spend all your hours thinking of worst case scenarios, as lawyers often do, that all the negative thinking could negatively impact your mental health.
Successful respected attorneys with good relationships are not immune. Even a great life is not enough to secure hope.
I have a friend in a PhD program who noted that grad students work just as much as lawyers, if not more but were less miserable. Further, grad students get paid much less and don’t have the same prestige. He concluded:
the difference between grad students and lawyers, is that grad students have hope.
Conclusion – Causes of Lawyer Anxiety and Depression
I wrote 5,000 words before I split this post into two parts (you’re welcome). The first part is explanatory; the second part is constructive and focuses on what we can do to help lawyers who suffer from depression.
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.
Connect to Activities with Intrinsic Values
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.
Become a Better Friend
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.
Tackle Childhood Trauma or Grief
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.
Have a Real Life
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.
Pay Down Debt, Or Otherwise Work to Secure Your Future
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.
How to Manage Depression as a Lawyer: My Experience with Depression Overwhelm
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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