Lawyers experience depression at rates significantly higher than the general population. Lawyers and mental health professionals have put forth a variety of explanations for this. One is that attorneys tend to catastrophize. It is part of an attorney's job to anticipate the worst. Many also point to the long hours and stress. Others suggest modern practice, with its 24/7 connectedness, makes it difficult to escape work to relax and enjoy life.
Whatever the underlying reasons, lawyers need resources to help combat this serious – and potentially fatal – issue. No one is too busy, too capable, or too successful to suffer from mental health issues, including depression.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement to de-stigmatize depression in the legal industry. A host of resources is now available for attorneys looking to get help. Every state offers confidential peer support geared specifically for attorneys, for example.
Sadness, Depression or “Burnout”?
There are several types of depression. It is all-too easy to dismiss depression as a temporary sadness, or burnout. But depression is an illness with physical underpinnings, not something that should be dismissed. The DSM-V recognizes several types of depression, including:
- Major depressive disorder
- Bipolar depression
- Postpartum depression
- Seasonal affective disorder
Depression does not look the same in all people. While the symptoms of depression can vary, as can the type, all must be taken seriously. Remember, the degree to which you feel sad can be a factor in depression, but it is not the only issue. How long you've felt sad, physical effects and how it's impacting your day-to-day life are what differentiates depression from sadness.
Symptoms of Depression
Attorneys often struggle to recognize depression in themselves. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but symptoms of major depressive disorder include:
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Trouble concentrating or a lack of judgment
- Taking little interest in things that used to provide happiness
- Changes in appetite
- Irritability or other trouble controlling emotional outbursts
- Thoughts of suicide or thinking you or your loved ones would be better off if you were dead
You don't need to show all symptoms to be depressed. If you are in doubt, you can also take this self-assessment, the PHQ Depression Questionnaire, which has proven to be a reliable measure of depression, although it is certainly not a substitute for a professional diagnosis.
It Can Get Better
Despite the current focus on mental health, there is still a stigma associated with depression in the legal profession. Many sufferers worry that they will be labeled as burnouts or people who couldn't cut it as a lawyer. This fear is unnecessary; many lawyers have experienced depression, or are currently attempting to manage it. You can be an outstanding lawyer even if you are working on managing the symptoms of depression.
Remember, treatment is always an option. Lawyers who suffer from depression often think treatment is for others – people who are "worse off." Many take a wait-and-see approach, hoping symptoms will go away on their own. But you do not need to wait for symptoms to worsen to get help.
Being open to medical help is the first step. If you trust your primary care physician, they are a good first source of potential treatment options. Your primary care physician may understand other potential underlying issues and may be able to refer you to a psychiatrist.
Whether it is talk therapy, medication, meditation, peer support or something else that works for you, the good news is that multiple treatments have been proven effective. You are not alone, and you do not need to feel this way forever.
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