Cathy “Cat” Bennett was a remarkable person and one of the founders of the jury and trial consultation field. She used to say, “give people their flowers during their lifetime.” It is that time of year when we celebrate the great joy that our profession brings to us, our staff and our families. We truly are blessed to be part of a great and noble profession. It’s the time of year that we acknowledge and appreciate all the hard work and dedication of those who work with us and for us. It’s the time of year when we give and receive our flowers.
It is also the time of the year when a number of loved ones may spiral into a gloomy mood. The holidays and the winter SAD—seasonal affective disorder—exacerbate the pain for those who suffer from depression.
Depression does not discriminate. Its tentacles touch all groups of people regardless of age, race, religion, education or socioeconomic status. But the legal profession is particularly hard hit. Statistics in this area don’t lie. In the early 1990s, Johns Hopkins University did a study of the top 105 professions and lawyers topped the list in incidence of major depression. It seems there is little that has changed over the decades to make the practice of law less stressful. A study by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation looked at a sample of more than 12,000 lawyers. It was the first major study of its kind in 25 years. Although the focus of the study was substance abuse, the study found 28 percent of attorneys struggle with some degree of depression.
What is the definition of depression and what does depression feel like to the person who is suffering? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines depression as the experience of five or more of the following nine symptoms in the same two week span. Each of these symptoms represents a change from previous functioning and needs to be present nearly every day: Depressed mood (subjective or observed); loss of interest or pleasure, most of the day; change in weight or appetite; insomnia or hypersomnia; psychomotor retardation or agitation that is observed; loss of energy or fatigue; feelings of worthlessness or guilt; concentration or indecisiveness; recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation or attempt.
Individuals who suffer from depression have described their persistent symptoms this way: Feelings of sadness, emptiness, or unhappiness; angry outbursts, irritability or frustration even over small matters; loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, such as sex; sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much; tiredness or lack of energy so that even small tasks take a huge effort; change in appetite in either weight gain or loss; anxiety, agitation or restlessness that may include excessive worrying, pacing, handwringing or an inability to sit still.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by professional problems, financial problems, marital problems, alcohol/substance abuse problems or any combination thereof, you are not alone and there is help available all around you. If you are hurting, people are ready, willing and able to help you. Don’t give up. Be guided by faith and belief, not by personal demons that have no power over you.
If you know someone who is suffering from depression or seems to be “checking out,” here are some suggestions for what you can do to help them:
- Make sure the individual knows that you’re talking to them out of concern and not in an argumentative or threatening manner.
- Give the individual repeated opportunities to talk to you or someone qualified to determine the extent of the depression. Ask the person when is a good time to talk so that they feel in control.
- Always take their feelings seriously.
- Encourage them to seek professional help.
- Let them know what support services are available.
- Be direct with the individual and ask them if they are considering or thinking about suicide.
- Try to get the individual to a psychiatrist or psychologist who can determine the most appropriate form of treatment which may include psychotherapy or antidepressant medication. The vast majority of individuals that seek treatment for depression benefit from treatment.
We think it is time for the legal community to address the issue of depression and suicide. The ticket to practice law brings great opportunity and responsibility but it also results in enormous pressure and pain. To that end, we recommend law schools begin training on what to do once an individual begins to feel depressed and doesn’t know where to turn. Free and confidential counseling should be offered to anyone in the legal profession or their families. The State Bar should do a completely confidential survey of lawyers and judges to determine the extent of anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts or ideation within the Texas legal community. Lawyers should practice a combination of techniques, such as mindfulness, which means to live in the present without judging the experience and meditation, which teaches practitioners to quiet their minds. Both have been found to be effective in the treatment of depression and in some circumstances are as effective as antidepressants.
We want to end this article with a story. Whenever Robert is not on the road working, he always reads stories about famous people to his 8-year-old son at bedtime. They lay in his son’s bed and Robert will dramatically read a chapter each night. One recent evening, he kissed his son good night and noticed that his son moved over to where Robert had been laying down. Robert asked his son if he moved over because that part of the bed was warm and his son said, “No, Dad, I move over every time so I can fall asleep smelling you.” In that moment, Robert was truly grateful for the “flowers” his son had just given him.
Please give people their flowers today. Take a few minutes to let them know they are important, that they matter. You just may be the light that was needed to see their first step out of the darkness.
The authors dedicate this article to Steven Mostyn, an outstanding litigator and advocate who succumbed to a battle with depression. Please keep his wife and their kids in your thoughts and prayers.