March 01, 2015

Out of the Darkness: Overcoming Depression among Lawyers

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace;
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
—“Richard Cory,” Edwin Arlington Robinson

Bob was a practicing lawyer for more than 30 years. He participated in bar association events and was a frequent CLE speaker. Outside of his practice, he attended his local church and sang with community choirs. He fished and hunted and on occasion savored a single-malt scotch. He was gregarious, outgoing, and had more friends than could be counted.

And one cold winter night, in the depth of despair that he never shared, he went into his garage, got behind the wheel, turned on the engine, and went to sleep forever.

“Bob” was a real person. Unfortunately, his story is not unusual for the legal profession.

Depression, suicide, and other mental health issues continue to plague the legal profession in numbers that far outstrip the general population. It is an issue of which the profession, and everyone in it, needs to be aware.

A Special Burden

Simply stated, the legal profession is prone to higher incidences of depression than the general population. One study in 1990 by Johns Hopkins University found that lawyers as a group are nearly four times more likely to suffer from depression than the average person.

As many as one in four lawyers suffer from psychological distress, including anxiety, social alienation, isolation, and depression. Heavy law school debt frequently forces graduates into high-paying jobs at private firms, where intense deadlines, staggering billable-hour requirements, and grinding hours are routine. The conflict-driven nature of the profession also plays a role, as does traditional legal training, which conditions lawyers to be emotionally withdrawn, a trait that can help them professionally but hurt them personally. Additionally, lawyers are known to be high achievers, perfectionists, and workaholics, all of which can lead to high stress and depression rates. According to a 1991 Johns Hopkins University study of 105 professions, lawyers top the list in the incidence of major depression. Other studies indicate that the rate of substance abuse among lawyers is double that of the national average.

Not surprisingly, there is a correlation between incidents of suicide and depression, substance abuse, and other mental health issues. Statistics suggest that a high percentage of individuals who commit suicide are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. One study showed that one-third of those who committed suicide tested positive for alcohol and one in five had evidence of opiates.

In 2007 the United States had more than 34,000 suicides, which is a rate of 94 suicides per day, or one suicide every 15 minutes. It is the second leading cause of death among 25- to 34-year-olds and the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.

In 2008 the United States had 376,306 people who were treated in emergency departments for injuries that were self-inflicted. Approximately 163,489 of those individuals were hospitalized.

As with depression, the rate of suicide among lawyers is higher than among all other occupations. The National Institute for Safety and Health found that male lawyers age 20 to 64 are more than twice as likely to die from suicide than are men the same age in a different occupation.

Depression and the Legal Mind

Psychologist Martin Seligman notes that the legal profession is unique in that it is the only profession where pessimists—those who see problems as the norm and not the exception—out-perform optimists. According to Seligman, the legal profession calls for caution, skepticism, and anticipation that things will go wrong. “Unfortunately, what makes for a good lawyer may make for an unhappy human being” (quoted in “The Dirty Secret in the Lives of Lawyers” by Stephen M. Terrell, Res Gestae, June 2006). As such, we must be on the lookout to protect ourselves and our colleagues from the adverse consequences of such tendencies.

Lawyers seem to have a particular reluctance to seek help for depression and mental health issues because they are concerned about appearing weak or negatively affecting their reputation. Lawyers we may be, but we are human, after all. In 2004 a study was completed at Cottonwood de Tucson, a behavioral health treatment center in Arizona, where lawyers recovering from mental illness were interviewed. These individuals indicated that one main obstacle preventing them from accessing care was that they believed they could handle it on their own. Additionally, these lawyers were afraid that seeking help would negatively impact their reputation.

In some states, bar exam applicants are required to disclose whether they have been treated for mental health issues. This could exacerbate the problem; future lawyers may not seek treatment in order to avoid the question of whether they have been treated for mental illness, thereby raising questions as to whether they are “suitable” to practice law.

Assistance for Lawyers

Dealing with a mental illness does not make a lawyer less intelligent, less strong, or any less of an attorney. In many instances, it takes more courage to seek assistance than to stay silent. Anyone practicing in the field of law should not be afraid to speak up if they are battling a form of mental illness. We must make sure that we assist ourselves and our colleagues to access help whenever necessary.

There is ample confidential assistance available for lawyers. The ABA provides educational materials for lawyers about substance abuse, stress, depression, and other mental health issues, and it works closely with lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) run by state and local bar associations. The website of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs ( is a great tool for any lawyers who find themselves in a battle related to mental health—or know a colleague who is.

Recognizing Depression

But just what is depression, and how do we know if we, or someone close to us, is suffering from it? Depression is not simply being sad or having “the blues.” Depression is a gut-wrenching, debilitating, hopeless despair that impacts every phase of life. It is a deep trench. No matter how many people tell you what a beautiful world there is outside the trench, you simply cannot see it.

Depression is not just emotional, but physical. Those who suffer depression may have an imbalance or inadequacy in certain chemicals in the brain that regulate mood (serotonin is the most commonly known). The condition is no different than a diabetic’s inability to process sugar. But the effect of depression does not have an easily measurable physical manifestation such as blood sugar level. Rather, depression is a complex syndrome that produces behavior that alienates its victims from their friends, family, and coworkers. And this alienation exacerbates the isolation, driving the depression deeper and deeper.

Deprived of needed interaction with others, the lawyer withdraws into his or her own thoughts. It becomes a deadly spiral. And when, like “Bob,” word of a suicide comes, friends express surprise, saying, “I never knew he was having those problems.”

What are the signs of depression? The seven most common warning signs of depression consist of the following:

  1. Loss of interest in most all activities
  2. Loss of pleasure or enjoyment in what were enjoyable activities
  3. Indecisiveness
  4. Fatigue
  5. Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  6. Significant weight gain or loss without dieting
  7. Feelings of worthlessness

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued warning signs for suicide, which include:

  1. Threatening to hurt or kill oneself
  2. Talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself
  3. Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide
  4. Looking for ways to kill oneself, such as purchase of a gun
  5. Making funeral or burial plans, making wills, or organizing insurance documents
  6. Withdrawing from friends, family, and society
  7. Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger
  8. Feeling trapped like there’s no way out
  9. Feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep, or sleeping all the time
  10. Experiencing dramatic mood changes
  11. Increasing alcohol or drug use

If you have a friend or associate who shows any signs of depression, you should never be afraid to ask about suicide. Simply ask, “Has it been so bad that you’ve thought about suicide?” Just the simple act of asking this question can reduce the risk of suicide. Studies show that 75 percent of those who commit suicide talk about it or display other warning signs before attempting it. In fact, a common myth is that people who talk about suicide are simply “seeking attention” and are not “serious.”

If you know a person who is in so much emotional pain that suicide seems an option, act immediately. Call your local suicide prevention number. Contact the judge/lawyer assistance program in your area. (See the list of resources above.) These experienced professionals are ready to help lawyers with the many challenges that accompany our profession. And stay with your friend. Do not leave them alone with their thoughts while professional help arrives.

Whether it is you, or someone you know, the answer is not to hide, not to ignore the issue. Don’t be judgmental if someone confides in you. Don’t be “sworn to secrecy.” Take a single courageous step to seek help and to make “that” call. If you are aware of a person who needs your assistance, guide the troubled person to help.

We must move this hidden secret “out of the darkness.” We must reverse the grim trend of recent statistics by breaking through the confines of stigma and stereotype, by understanding that depression and other mental health issues are real (not contrived, nor a sign of weakness), by recognizing the suffering of our friends and colleagues, and by urgently seeking and encouraging assistance.

There have already been too many “Bobs” in the legal profession. We don’t need more.

Resources for Help

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800/273-TALK (800/273-8255)
  • State and Local Lawyer Assistance Programs:
  • National Helpline for Lawyers: 866/LAW-LAPS (866/529-5277)
  • National Helpline for Judges Helping Judges: 800/219-6474
  • International Lawyers in Alcoholics Anonymous (ILAA):
  • Other National Resources:

Courtesy of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs,