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Why I'm Speaking Up About Lawyers and Depression

Years ago, 1997 to be exact, I was thinking about writing an article for a lawyer’s magazine about my experiences with depression while practicing law. I had lunch with a good friend of mine, Bob, who at that time worked in a large litigation firm in New York City. Since then, Bob has become a federal judge and remains a dear friend.

After we had ordered, I told Bob about my idea to write the article. He sat quietly and listened, looking down at his salad as I spoke. Finally, he said, “Dan, this is an awful idea.  While noble, why would you expose yourself to the insults some people are going to hurl your way.” We spoke at length and I finally told my dear friend I was going to write the article anyway.

For the first few years after that initial talk, Bob would call me regularly and check in, “How’s it going, Dan? Is everything all right?” I so appreciated Bob’s loving concern. More importantly, however, something began to change in our relationship. Bob eventually disclosed to me that he had had a episode of major depression some years ago and had tried to take his own life.

It seems to me that my willingness to speak frankly about my depression gave Bob permission to speak about his.

Unfortunately, talking about depression is not easy for most men. They have lots of trouble coming to terms with depression, even when they get treatment. I believe that’s even truer if they’re lawyers.

Lawyers aren’t supposed to have problems; we’re supposed to fix them. Most male lawyers I know would rather drop dead than admit they have problem with depression. I guess the exception to this observation is when the wheels have fallen off. Then, and only then, do they recognize (hopefully) they are experiencing depression. The consequences for failing to recognize this basic fact can be serious (loss of productivity at work, sleep problems, etc.) or even fatal — lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers, and the profession is fourth on the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ranking of suicide deaths by profession.

Psychologist Terrance Real, the author of the book, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression,” makes the observation that we don’t think of men as depressed. This is because when we typically think of the “overt” signs of depression – weeping, a willingness to discuss painful feelings, etc. More often, men experience “covert” depression that might express itself in addiction, isolation, workaholism and increased irritability.

The excellent website, Men Get Depression, says there are three distinctive signs of male depression:

“Depression may show up as physical signs like constant headaches, stomach problems or pain that doesn’t seem to be from other causes or that doesn’t respond to normal treatments.”

Risk-taking: “
Sometimes, depressed men will start taking risks like dangerous sports, compulsive gambling, reckless driving and casual sex.”

Anger: “
Anger can show itself in different ways like road rage, having a short temper, being easily upset by criticism and even violence.”

So often, I’ve noticed the first symptom male lawyers notice when they’re slipping is in the performance department. One of the symptoms of clinical depression is difficulty concentrating. This leads to problems in getting work out the door. They may try to hide their work is slipping, ask for extensions and take much longer to do tasks that were simple and routine in the past.

My therapist used to liken my depression to a caveman camping out of his cave. It took a lot to coax me out of there. Men need to come out of their caves into the light of day where the colors are brighter, others can help them and they can get better.

This post originally appeared on Lawyers With Depression.

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