In Part I of this little series, I laid out some of the statistics regarding the scope of the problem of depression and anxiety among lawyers and law students. Before I tell my story, I want to spend a little time talking about why these diseases are so prevalent among lawyers.
One of the more eloquent “whys” for the high incidence of depression among lawyers was contained in an opinion piece by Patrick Krill (a lawyer, clinician and board-certified counselor) that accompanied the CNN article on lawyer suicides. As Patrick put it, “lawyers are both the guardians of your most precious liberties and the butts of your harshest jokes[; i]nhabiting the unique role of both hero and villain in our cultural imagination….” Patrick explained that the high incidence of depression (and substance abuse, which is another huge problem) was due to a number of factors but that “the rampant, multidimensional stress of the profession is certainly a factor.” Further, “there are also some personality traits common among lawyers — self-reliance, ambition, perfectionism and competitiveness -- that aren't always consistent with healthy coping skills and the type of emotional elasticity necessary to endure the unrelenting pressures and unexpected disappointments that a career in the law can bring.”
Patrick’s discussion of this issue really stuck a cord with me. Practicing law is hard. The law part is not that hard (that was the fun part for me), but the business side of law is a bear. Finding clients, billing time, and collecting money, are just a few aspects of the business of law of which I was not a big fan. Keeping tasks and deadlines in dozens (or hundreds) of cases straight and getting everything done well and on time is a constant challenge. The fear of letting one of those balls drop can be terrifying, especially for the type A perfectionist who is always terrified of making a mistake or doing a less than perfect job. Forget work-life balance. Forget vacations. Every day out of the office is another day you are behind.
Plus, as a lawyer (and especially as a litigator), no matter how good a job you do, sometimes you lose. That inevitable loss is made worse by the emotion that the lawyer often takes on from his or her client. Almost no client is excited to call her lawyer. Clients only call, of course, when they have problems. Those problems can range from the mild (for example, a traffic ticket) to the profound (like a capital murder charge). But whatever the problem, the client is counting on the lawyer to fix it. Every lawyer I know takes that expectation and responsibility very seriously. As much as you try not to get emotionally invested in your client’s case or problem, you often do. When that happens, losing hurts. Letting your client down hurts. This pain leads to reliving the case and thinking about all of the things you could have done better. This then leads to increased vigilance in the next case. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, for some lawyers this leads to a constant fear of making mistakes, then a constant spike of stress hormones that, eventually, wear the lawyer down. The impact of this constant bombardment of stress hormones can be to trigger a change in brain chemistry that, over time, leads to major depression.
Depression is a subtle and insidious disease. By the time you are sick enough to recognize that you have a problem, your ability to engage in accurate self-evaluation is significantly impaired. It is a strange thing to know, deep down, that something is wrong with you but to not be able to recognize the massive changes in yourself. Helping yourself at that point is often impossible. Unfortunately, those suffering from depression become expert actors who are extremely adept at hiding their problems and building a façade of normalcy. Eventually, it takes all of your energy to maintain this façade. The façade becomes the only thing there is.
Depression is not a character flaw. It is not a weakness. It is not a moral failing. You cannot “just get over it.” No amount of will-power, determination or intestinal fortitude will cure it. Depression is a disease caused (in very basic and general terms) by an imbalance and/or insufficiency of two neurotransmitters in the brain: serotonin and norepinephrine. In this way, it is biologically similar to diabetes, which is caused by the insufficiency of insulin in the body. As a disease, depression can be treated – and treated very effectively. But it takes time and it takes help – personal help and professional help.
And now we get to the personal part. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.