How do lawyers know if they are depressed because they don’t like practicing law, or they don’t like practicing law because they are depressed? Any suggestions for making sense of a common quandary for myself and many lawyers I know?
It might seem like an odd starting place for answering your question, and don’t hate me, but I’ll refer you back to your first-year property class. Specifically, the first in time, first in right rule. In other words, which came first, and should therefore be given priority, the dissatisfaction with practicing law or the depression? It might require some painstaking psychological archaeology, but if you are able to sit down and catalogue your recollections of which psychic state began to emerge first, it could hold some useful clues that will help guide you (and any mental health professional you might speak with) towards the best and most appropriate solutions.
Now, I know it might not always be easy to temporally untangle career dissatisfaction and a depressed mental state—a fact which is really at the heart of your question—but it is at least worth a searching and methodical try. A good first question to ask is whether there was ever a time when you did ‘like’ practicing law. If so, ask yourself what has changed since that time, including other life events or stressors that might not have anything to do with your practice. Another useful area of focus is how long you have felt this way. If it has been a year or two, it is not what could be characterized as a situational or transient type of depression—something we might all struggle with from time to time as life throws the inevitable curveball.
A predicate to all of this, however, is the need to determine if you are actually depressed. Maybe you just hate your job, end of story. Moving on to a different practice or firm could be the change you need. Or, maybe you have an underlying medical condition that is masquerading as or causing a depressed feeling. Or, maybe you are truly struggling with clinically significant depression—something that is not unlikely due to the fact that as many as 28 percent of lawyers find themselves in that boat. Point being, depression is widely misunderstood, with many people not recognizing its full dimensions or simply equating depression with “feeling sad.” In reality, it is far more complex than that, often with manifestations you might not expect.
As a threshold matter, I always recommend speaking with a licensed mental health professional to figure out what is really going on with your mental state—a conversation that will likely lead to at least an informal assessment of your symptoms, and allow you to get some valuable feedback. If your feelings of sadness, disconnectedness or emptiness are intense or overwhelming, I would urge you to speak with a mental health professional immediately. If not, and your condition is such that you are managing but just not thriving the way you want to, I’d recommend that you spend some time reflecting on four specific dimensions of your life to better understand if you are depressed: your feelings, thoughts, behaviors and physical well-being.
When it comes to your feelings, have you been feeling overwhelmed, sad, irritable, frustrated, indecisive, guilty or hopeless?
Regarding your thoughts, have you been thinking you are worthless, a failure, a disappointment, that things never go your way, or that the people would be better off without you around?
In terms of behaviors, have you stopped doing things you once enjoyed, lost your ability to focus and get things done, started relying on alcohol or drugs, withdrawn from family or friends, or otherwise stopped acting like yourself?
About your physical well-being, are you experiencing a lot of headaches, digestive problems, tiredness or lack of energy, sleep difficulties, appetite and weight changes, or otherwise feeling physically compromised?
The more of these issues you are currently experiencing, the more likely it is that you are depressed, and the more important it will be for you to reach out and talk with a mental health professional soon. Irrespective of whether it is the practice of law that is causing it, depression is a highly treatable condition. Up to 80 percent of those treated for depression show an improvement in their symptoms, often within four to six weeks of beginning talk therapy, medication, attending support groups or a combination of these treatments. With a success rate like that, availing yourself of some mental health help is well worth your time.
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Patrick R. Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information.