Balancing the Bar

Happiness and the Practice of Law

Depression from the Outside – Dealing with depressed colleagues

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“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Do you think a coworker, a family member or a friend is depressed?  Is there anyway to be sure? What are the signs?  Do you realize there is a depression issue but can’t make sense of it?  Perhaps, you just want to be able to grab the other person and shake them until they stop behaving in such a strange way.  If there were only easy questions with straight forward answers to the issue of depression and  its causes then there would be no need to write and discuss it.  

There are many myths about depression.  The reasons many myths exist is that people without depression, or people viewing depression from the outside, try to make sense of an illness which is  personal and hard to understand for the sufferer himself not to mention the outsider.   Unless, you have lived with someone who is depressed, or have had mental issue yourself you can’t possible hope to understand a depressed persons point of view.  Here are a few statements I have heard others say about depression and or about discussing depression.

  •  Depression is a sign of weakness. 
  • It his personality type that makes him depressed.  I don’t have his personality so I am never going to have that issue.
  • Stress management can cure depression.  It’s just stress.
  • Medication for depression is dangerous it can cause you to commit suicide
  • There is nothing wrong with him he just needs to man up or man out.
  • Discussing depression and mental illness in the legal profession is well depressing, a downer or etc.
  • We can just kick the can down the road and the issue will resolve itself.
  • Just snap out of it – you can decide to stop being depressed. 
  • If I have faith and do everything right, I will succeed and stop feeling this way.

I confess, I have had some of these thoughts in the past.  To be honest, we all can get frustrated when a family member or friend is depressed.  We feel helpless.  Our non-depressed brain starts to: a) tell us how we are different and,  b) tell us what the other person should be able to do to fix the depression; or c) just denies the obvious  – that the person is struggling.   Depression can defy logic and for  lawyers especially it is hard to comprehend and therefore, cannot be fixed.  So, the track most normally followed is  don’t deal with it and it will go away.  So, to bust some of these myths and  help others in my profession understand the illness I have some truths about depression to share.

The Truisms of Depression.

Depression symptoms differ depending on the individual.  In other words, some people are paralyzed by the illness while others still work, but are not as productive.  In addition, depression can vary in strength. Some people have debilitating, can’t get out of bed, depression while others come to work unable to focus, but still show up and tell those around them that they are fine.  There is no predictor of how a person will behave.  You as a supervisor, partner, and friend have to be open to the effects of depression on the person suffering in order to understand how to help.

People with depression can be very strong.  What?  That’s right, it is not easy functioning with depression.  You have to be strong to come to work, to carry such a secret with you and to support your family. Combined with this strength, however,  is a silence of shame and embarrassment because the depressed person feels unable to control the thoughts in their head.  Feelings of failure or worry about failure may be indicators that someone is suffering from either anxiety or depression especially if they occur often.  We all fear lack of success but for some it becomes a dibilitating thought process.

People who are depressed may not label it as depression .   A depressed person may not know that this melancholia they are experiencing is an illness.  Saying you should snap out of it or just get over it or and or punishing that person/employee will not help them get out of the depression.   Point is that someone who is depressed is not going to come right out and acknowledge it to themselves or to others.  So, you have to be willing to look for indicators and proactively address the issue. 

Depression can manifest in the body in such ailments as ulcers, sleep disorders, fatigue and malaise.  There are physical and behavioral manifestations that it pays to know and understand.  Depression can lead to higher risk of certain health disorders such as gastrointestinal and sleep.  Many times the underlying issue for these ailments is depression and it is important to discuss your emotional as well as physcial health with your physician.  If a colleague has severe sleep issues or has stomach issues (i.e. ulcers) perhaps a discussion about their mental well-being is in order. 

Medication helps  depressed people.  You do not have to be “crazy” to fill and begin taking a prescription medication for anxiety or depression.  Medication together with psychotherapy can help you deal with the thoughts which underlie depression in a more effective way.  If your physician thinks you need the medication, then perhaps your should follow that medical advice.  By all means, discuss with a medical professional your depression and get help.  If you are not being  heard by your physician then get a new doctor pronto.  Your physician should be your healthcare partner and not just someone you see when you have to.

Depressed people may appear not to care, or conversely, they may care too much.  Once again depression is different depending on who is suffering.  So, the workaholic may spend even more time at the office and get less done while another person may avoid the office at all cost so people cannot discover their secret.  Shame and embarrassment are two strong forces which keep people silent and untreated.  Depressed people can’t just snap out of it.  They have to learn a new way of thinking and behaving to address the issue effectively.

Depression can co-occur with other mental disorders.  In other words, people can develop drug problems because of depression or they can start out with anxiety over work and wind up being depressed.  You can’t recover from one mental health issues without recovering from the other.  Just because someone stops drinking does not relieve other issues. 

Stress management is very good and a great place to startStress is a contributing factor to anxiety, depression and or substance abuse  suffered by lawyers.   The more stress you have and the worse you manage it, the easier it is to feel overwhelmed and exhausted leading to procrastination or late work product.   Ackowledging your stress is the first step.  We all seem to do that very well.  It is reordering our priorities that seems to be the issue. 

Depression can be a family affair.   Many of us develop patterns of behavior from childhood onward that make us prone to the disease. Behavioral therapy can help you retrain your mind and behavior to manage these tendencies.   In other words, if your parent has depression issues you may learned behaviors which are similar.  Retraining to brain to think and behave differently is possible. 

In closing, it is time that Depression is spoken about and addressed by Lawyers,  Bar Associations, Judges and colleagues. It is an illness that has the capacity to ruin careers, families and lives.  As fellow lawyers, we must address this growing epidemic in our profession.  The first step in doing this is to breakdown the myths associated with the illness and understand that a person with such a condition must be supported, not ostracized, punished or isolated.  In essence, many of us, through perpetuation of the myths above,  are condemning our colleagues to suffer in silence.  For many, discussing mental health issues and depression in particular is “depressing” but the choice not to discuss is it simply is not acceptable given the rates of depression, anxiety and suicide within our profession.  Remember, depression is treatable and many people receive treatment and lead productive balanced lives.  However, they cannot do so unless they can look at the situation and are honest and self-compassionate. 

Taking necessary precautions on a firm or industry level is a start toward addressing the growing trend of mental illness in the legal profession.   If you are unsure whether colleague is ill,  keeping asking them how they are doing,  make yourself available and always provide a supportive nonjudgmental presence.  Wearing blinders, expressing anger at or excuses for the partner or associate who is clearly struggling is not an option.  You can only deal with an issue if you address head on. 

Or, to use another To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus Finch Quote,  “Best way to clear the air is to have it all in the open”. 

Silence, my friends and colleagues,  is a recipe for continued suffering and disaster.

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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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