Balancing the Bar

Happiness and the Practice of Law

Distiguishing Depression, an illness, from disaffection in Lawyers.

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What is depression and how is it distinguished from life’s down moments/  The blog ‘The Depression Cure” has an interesting essay entitled Depression Tragically Misunderstood.  The topic caught my attention.  Is the word depression misused and does this give rise to the “snap out of it” attitude so many lawyers  have?

Depression is a long-term problem.  Sadness is something we all have in our lives and  something which is often referred to as depression.  Depression in a clinical sense is an illness.  Depression in the common everyday conversation often times means you are sad, blue or down.  “I feel depressed today.”  I hear that from others often.  People, on the other hand,  who are clinically depressed are in need of medical and psychological treatment. They have a  brain disease.  It is no different from diabetes or heart disease.  In fact, the disease was best described by Freud as Melancholia.  Churchill once described his depression as his “black dog”.

Many lawyers fail to acknowledge depression as a real possibility of allowing their career ups and downs going unchecked.  Many times people accept a demoralized, disillusioned and disappointing existence as a part and parcel of being a lawyer or at least maturing as a lawyer.  So, we accept that are down periods and daily negativity as are part of our work and therefore, we begin the process of rewiring our brain to become accustomed to these states.  The more you become accustomed to the state the more your brain functions that way.

Being sad or disappointed is such an everyday thing for many attorneys.   There are so many variables in our lives that make the practice of law unstable – clients, opposing counsel, co workers, support staff.    Further, it becomes a habit to look at things negatively and to expect the worst out of your day.   In fact, it is what lawyers are known for.

The thing is every one has a negativity bias.  We are more likely to remember the negative things because of our “once burned twice shy predisposition”.  Many times this is a subtle thing but if you actually pay attention to the reactions of lawyers around you it can be quite evident that  negativity is the life blood of our industry.  Phrases like “this case is a looser” or “they will not hire me” or “associates are just like barn cats” are great examples.

So this negativity bias is a glass half empty approach.  Combine that with self-criticism many have and the general lack of civility and you have a great recipe for sadness, anxiety and in some cases depression.  The good news is that you can stave off some of this.  Try taking a walk at lunch, meeting a friend who is not an attorney for lunch or keeping a list of all the good things that happen in your or a list of what you are grateful for.    I try to find something to be grateful for everyday.  On bad days,  I am grateful for the fact that I have a job that allows me to use my brain and my communication skills to make money.  I repeat this when I am having a rough day and I also repeat “It is what it is while it is”.

Finally, instead of saying you are depressed trying the following to describe your moods – disillusioned, demoralized, unmotivated, stresses, anxious, mental exhaustion.   Chances are when you really think about it, you are feeling one or more of these feelings.  The great thing about these states is they are temporary particularly if we don’t reinforce the thoughts by dwelling on them.  They will normally pass away on their own.  If, on the other hand, you feel a black fog or can’t shake your down mood after an extended period of time you may want to not only label it as depression but also seek help.

So many of us have misused the term “depression” that it has lost its medical meaning and this makes those with such an illness less likely to come forward or discuss it with others who know.  When someone around us comes forward and says they are depressed we tend to  think back to  that time of disillusionment, stress or etc. and how easily it went away.  Because our down time passed so easily we think people with depression can “get over it”.

It is never that simple, and someone in the throes of depression should never be told to “get over it”.  Part of the problem in our profession is that we expect those around us to “get over things” and not discuss them.  We sweep are down moods aside or “compartmentalize” them and they come back to haunt us when we least want them.   We treat people with stress as if they are weak and unworthy of support.  Only the strong are supported and the strong are those that keep buggering on regardless of what life throws at them.  So, it is the expectation that events are taken in stride.

What has this resulted in?  Low moral, increased rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.  Isn’t it time we stopped this behavior? Isn’t it worth reassessing our reactions to the mental distress of others around us?


Author: Tabitha M. Hochscheid

Attorney since 1995, interested in Attorney Health and Well Being and related issues for lawyers and the general population. Developer and Committee Chair of the Cincinnati Bar Association Health and Well Being Committee.

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