Depression in the legal profession: know when to seek help

Depression in law office
Lawyers have the highest depression rate of any career. Uncover what's driving the trend in the legal industry, recognize the warning signs and find out what you can do about it.

According to a groundbreaking study funded by the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs Research and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, attorneys are much more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers. In fact, according to a Johns Hopkins study, lawyers have the highest depression rate of any career and substance abuse rates within the legal industry are also significantly higher than among the general population.  

What’s behind depression within the legal industry? 

According to Rachel Fry, a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Alabama, who was recently quoted in an ABA Journal report “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.” In other words, what makes a person a good lawyer can also predispose them to bouts of depression. 

Legal professionals are also expected to work – and excel – in adversarial circumstances. They often have arduous schedules, lack the basic tools to deal with stressful situations, and are expected to solve all their clients’ problems. Because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues (particularly in the legal industry)lawyers are often unwilling to seek help and fall victim to chronic stress and depression, which sometimes leads to substance abuse and other unhealthy behaviors. 

Warning signs 

Some of the signs of depression are obvious, while others can be relatively subtle or easily dismissed. They often include: 

  • Withdrawal from family and friends 
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Mood swings 
  • Increased substance use 
  • Sleep changes 
  • Digestive problems that don’t improve, even with treatment 
  • Persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, or hopelessness

While most people experience these feelings at times, but if they become overwhelming, cause physical symptoms, or last for extended periods of time, it might be time for treatment. 

What legal professionals can do 

There are steps that law firms and legal professionals can take to stop suffering in silence and instead seek help, such as: 

  • Look beyond the stigma. Any stigma associated with mental health issues should significantly pale in comparison to one’s need to protect their personal well-being.  
  • Speak up. If your mental health is suffering, find a friend, family member, colleague, human resources staff member, or someone else that you can confide in.  
  • Contact a professional. Many mental health issues can be treated with medication, therapy, or a combination of the two, and some law firms will pay for these services through employee assistance programs.  
  • Get your priorities in order. Get to the root of your depression, and take steps to alleviate the problem. If you need more time off, figure out a way to make that happen. If exercise boosts your emotional state, carve out a slice of time for that. 
  • Learn proper breathing techniques. Deep breathing sends a message to the brain to calm down and relax, and the brain makes sure your body gets the message. When you breathe properly, your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure will all decrease accordingly. 
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to be too hard on yourself. Be grateful for the good days, and on days when you fall short of achieving your goals, don’t beat yourself up over it. 
  • Know that you’re not alone. Don’t assume that others will not be sensitive to your situation. Many of your colleagues are likely battling similar issues, and mental health is becoming a much more acceptable topic of conversation.

The Lawyers Depression Project (LDP) is a grassroots effort to address depression and other mental health issues in the legal industry. It helps attorneys, law students, law school graduates waiting for the bar exam results, and others in the legal field who have been diagnosed with depression or some other form of mental illness. LDP is also open to individuals who are suffering but have not yet been formally diagnosed, or those who just feel like “something isn’t right,” but have not sought professional help. All LDP services and technology – web forums, chat room, and video conferencing – are provided at no cost to members. 

Do you know of other ways to recognize depression in the legal industry, and how to help those experiencing it?  

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