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Depression in the Legal Profession: Information and Resources

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 and a host of resources are 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. The DSM-V recognizes, among others:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Bipolar depression
  • Postpartum depression
  • Seasonal affective disorder

These are just a few conditions. Trauma, abuse, substance use disorder, and a host of other factors can lead to symptoms of depression. Depression does not look the same in all people. While the symptoms can vary, all types of depression 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.

No Need to Wait

When dealing with depression, it can be tempting to put off confronting the issue until a later time. Chances are you are busy. Waiting and hoping it will go away can be attractive.

Sometimes, depression does go away largely on its own. But rather than leave it to chance, it's best to be proactive. Just as with your physical health, prevention can make a difference. Even if you feel you don't currently meet the criteria for major depressive disorder, therapy can help you deal with the day-to-day challenges of being an attorney. Many people who do not qualify as depressed under the DMV-5 criteria still report positive benefits from therapy, for example. And what does exercising, meditating, or some other mental health regimen hurt?

It Can Get Better

Despite the focus on mental health, there is still a stigma associated with mental health in the legal profession; many sufferers worry that they will be labeled as burnouts or people who couldn't cut it as a lawyer. But many lawyers have experienced, or are currently dealing with, depression. You can be an outstanding lawyer even if you are working on managing symptoms of depression.

Treatment is an option. Those who suffer from depression often think treatment is for other people (i.e. people who are worse off than you). 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, the most common method for treating depression, or medication, meditation, peer support or something else that works for you, the good news is that treatment has been proven effective. You are not alone, and you do not need to feel this way forever.

Learn More About Treatment Options

For Immediate Help

Lawyers Depression Project

Text NAMI to 741741 (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

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