James Corey, by all accounts, was a brilliant, successful man; a well-known New York corporate attorney at the top of his game with a happy marriage and a beautiful family. James was hardworking and respected by his co-workers and employees; he challenged his team to work smarter, he knew everyone’s name at the office, and he was constantly telling jokes. James had a large community of friends and family, he enjoyed working out, traveling, and was an amueter photographer. James, it seemed, had the perfect life until he committed suicide in 2014. Devastated, his family and friends tried to pick up the shattered pieces; what had happened to the funny, ambitious man they knew and loved?
James isn’t alone; Finis Price II was a successful Kentucky lawyer, a respected professor with a loving marriage who jumped to his death in 2012; beloved husband and father Ken Jameson from Ohio killed himself in May of 2011 despite a six-figure job; Mark Levy was an esteemed lawyer who had a full life with countless successes and loving family, but he committed suicide in his office.
Over time, the truth came out: each of these lawyers had been struggling with depression for months, even years, and had finally collapsed under the weight of their silent pain. Depression and suicide among attorneys is sadly common. Lawyers lead the nation with the highest incidence of depression, are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than other professionals, and rank fourth in occupational suicides, coming right after dentists, pharmacists, and physicians. In a recent study, 52% of lawyers stated that they were deeply dissatisfied with their work and lawyers are killing themselves at an increasingly alarming rate.
To many, these statistics are baffling. Why would lawyers, who supposedly have high-paying jobs and lead high-powered, glamorous lives, struggle with depression? “The stigma is huge with mental illness and depression. You’re supposed to be a problem solver, you’re supposed to be a superman or superwoman. You’re not supposed to have problems” says Dan Lukasik, founder of Lawyers with Depression. “ “The general public already has a problem with lawyers and when I started to talk about this problem they didn’t want to hear it. They thought, ‘a person who makes a lot of money and has this job should not be having this problem.’ ”
So what makes lawyers disproportionately prone to depression?
Dr. Andy Benjamin of the University of Washington believes it begins in law school. He conducted a study that estimated at least 40% of law students suffer from depression. After graduation comes the intense stress of passing the bar exam, finding (and keeping) a job, and actually practicing.
Life as a lawyer isn’t all money and glamor (sorry, TV lied to you). Practicing law is incredibly demanding and exceptionally stressful. Lawyers often work crazy hours (current minimum is 66 hours a week) under grueling pressure. We’re prone to competitiveness (surprise), perfectionism and pessimism, which are excellent characteristics for our field (pessimists are better at law), but detrimental to our psychological health.
Mostly, its the stress of a career that’s a win-lose game. “American law has similarly migrated from being a practice in which good counsel about justice and fairness was the primary good to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principle ends” says Lukasik. Lawyers are supposed to be highly intelligent, analytical, aggressive, detached, and must constantly managing conflicts from clients, other lawyers, opposition, insurance companies, judged, jurors, the bar association and more. It all adds up to be a huge emotional and mental cost. “There are a lot of high stress professions,” says Yvette Hourigan, of the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program. “Being a physician has stress. However, when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don’t send another physician in to try to kill the patient. You know, they’re all on the same team trying to do one job. In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game.”
What can we do for our colleagues who are struggling with depression? Start by understanding the demands and struggles of the legal field and recognizing that depression is a common, complex mental disorder that should be treated like any other illness.
Work on raising awareness about mental health issues and be sure to have information about resources in your firm and with your colleagues. Pay attention to the warning signs of depression and suicidal thoughts
Symptoms of Depression In Others
- Language clues; “I don’t think it’s worth living anymore”, “There is no meaning in anything”
- Expressions of anxiety, feeling trapped, hopelessness
- Increased isolation
- Exhausted appearance
- Missing work or events
- Decreased productivity
If you come across someone who is struggling, be compassionate towards their struggle and supportive of their healing process. Try to understand what they are going through; depression is frustrating to deal with and hard to talk about. Be sensitive about how you respond; saying things like “Just get over it”, “It’s all in your head!”, “What’s your problem?” is disrespectful and only further stigmatizes depression and mental illness.
How can you protect your mental health? Prioritize your life by focusing your efforts on what is truly important to you. Family, work, friends, hobbies? Maybe you’d like to spend more time with your family, travel, write a novel, or work on your model train set. Let go of activities that are less significant. Realize and accept that “mistakes” are an essential part of life and often learning opportunities; one mistake won’t end the world. Be aware of your emotional capacity; are you constantly stressed? Why? What are you emotional and mental boundaries? How can you find a healthy emotional balance between life and work? Take your mental health seriously; it should be as important as any other health issue. Watch for symptoms of depression.
Are You Experiencing Symptoms of Depression?
- Exhaustion, decreased energy
- Feeling guilty, worthless, helpless
- Feeling hopeless
- Insomnia, waking up too early, sleeping excessively
- Irritability, short-tempered
- Loss of interest in people or activities you once enjoyed
- Overeating or losing your appetite
- Persistent pain; headaches, aches, cramps, digestive issues
- Sadness, anxiety or feeling “empty”
- Struggle with concentration, previously easy tasks are now difficult
- Suicidal thoughts
If you are experiencing depression or are unsure if you are, see a doctor as soon as you can. Choose a mental health professional you feel comfortable with. Take advantage of the confidential Lawyer Assistance Programs in each state. It takes a lot of strength to ask for help, but you deserve it.