Recently, The Wall Street Journal posted an article relating to a young attorney’s struggles with depression. The news piece mentioned several statistics placing lawyers at the top of the country in statistical rates for depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal thought. Unfortunately, many of those affected do not desire to talk about mental health issues or even recognize that they have a problem.
It is no surprise that the legal profession attracts those who are driven and hardworking. The problem lies in the fact that the strengths that lead many people to law (competitiveness, drive to succeed, and willingness to work long hours) are the same traits that make people vulnerable to depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Many people wonder, “How do I know if I am struggling with one of these issues?” Depression is perhaps the most frequent cause of emotional suffering among lawyers, and can significantly decrease quality of life and productivity.
As of late 2011, it was estimated that lawyers have the highest rates of depression (3.6 times higher) and suicide (6 times greater) as compared with other professional groups.
Depression refers to a person’s mood and can include symptoms such as feelings of worthlessness or guilt, social withdrawal, agitation, fatigue and difficulty sleeping, and a general low mood. Several studies have found that social support, such as counseling or groups, have a positive impact on mental health whereas stressful life and work factors (i.e. the economic downturn, requirements for billable hours, long work days) are noted to have a negative impact on depressive symptoms. More recently, the increasing number of attorneys versus a decreasing number of available jobs may also contribute to depression among lawyers.
Along with depression, anxiety is a leading mental health problem that lawyers face. In fact, recent studies have shown a higher rate of the presence of anxiety symptoms (25 percent) in attorneys than those of depression (18 percent). Other studies have shown that possibly 20 percent of lawyers have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, which is consistent across law practices, age and gender.
However, depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. A few studies have found that even if Generalized Anxiety Disorder was not associated with depression at first, roughly 40 percent of those diagnosed eventually developed depression symptoms. It is not uncommon for individuals to turn to substances as a coping mechanism for depression, anxiety and the pressures that come along with a high stress work environment.
In a 2010 survey conducted in the U.S. by the ABA Young Lawyers Division, 30 percent of ABA members who were under the age of 36 or admitted into practice for fewer than three years were dissatisfied with the allocation of time between their work and personal lives.
This complaint was more prevalent among lawyers working for large firms. Compared to 23 percent of young lawyers in 1-2 person firms, more than 62 percent of young lawyers in 150-plus person firms expressed unhappiness about their inability to live a balanced life.
Nearly half of lawyers, in survey after survey, report that the demands of their work do not allow them to have a satisfying nonwork life (i.e., personal, family, social, civic). Of those who were divorced or separated, more than a third blamed the failure of their marriages partly on the pressures of their jobs.
Among lawyers who had never been married, nearly half said that the pressures of their jobs were partly to blame for that as well. A consistent finding is that younger and female lawyers are significantly more dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of their leisure time than older and male lawyers.
The attorney mentioned in The Wall Street Journal article went on to establish a self-help group and website targeted toward lawyers and law students who are seeking support within the field on mental health and personal issues. Although at first the attorney was reprimanded by his firm for the postings, he has now had a 25 percent increase in client requests in the past year. Many in the field are now applauding him for his courage to speak out about such taboo topics.
For more information regarding support groups for legal professionals with depression or anxiety, check out www.lawyerswithdepression.com.
Also, The Florida Bar has established the Florida Lawyers Assistance Program (fla-lap.org) to assist locally with attorneys struggling with mental health issues.
If you wish to discuss the implications of depression, anxiety, substance abuse or just want local support, there are numerous other resources available. Local counselors and psychologists can be found on the Psychology Today website (www.psychologytoday.com), where the American Psychological Association ensures the credentials and ethics of those listed.
Addressing mental health issues can be intimidating and awkward. It is important to remember that psychological services are confidential and individually based. Seeking the right type of service is the first step in achieving the life you deserve.
Whitney Nobles, Ph.D., LMHC, NCC is a licensed mental health counselor and nationally certified counselor in Jacksonville with experience helping professionals struggling with depression, substance abuse, anxiety and many other mental health concerns. For questions, comments or information regarding additional psychological resources, Dr. Nobles may be reached at 312-3252 or at [email protected].