Lawyers are often seen as protectors, helping others recover and attain justice after trauma. But even protectors need help sometimes. In this episode of On Balance, hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent talk to Shawn Healy about the prevalence of depression in the legal profession, why it’s so common, and how to practice wellness in a way that addresses depression before it reaches a crisis point. They discuss overcoming the legal industry stigma that sees mental illness as weakness and the difference between sadness and clinical depression. They also address law students directly, urging them to invest in mental wellness early on to mitigate future struggles.
Dr. Shawn Healy joined Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in March of 2014 following his work in a private group practice in Cambridge.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
Depression in the Legal Industry
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice, with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network. Take it away ladies.
JoAnn Hathaway: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent.
JoAnn Hathaway: And we are very pleased to have Dr. Shawn Healy join us today as our podcast guest to talk about how legal professionals can recognize and rebound from depression.
Dr. Healy, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Shawn Healy: Sure. Thanks for the invitation to be on your podcast.
Yeah, as JoAnn mentioned, my name is Shawn Healy, I am a clinical psychologist and I work for the Massachusetts Lawyers Assistance Program called Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. I work with law students, lawyers, judges and legal professionals.
We help with pretty much the whole gamut of issues that plague the legal profession in terms of mental health, addiction, wellness, stress, burnout, all those things that are so common among high stress professionals.
And one of the things that myself and my colleague Dr. Jeffrey Fortgang have had an opportunity to do is write a book for the ABA, which is titled ‘The Full Weight of the Law’. And so we wrote the prevalence of depression in the legal field and hopefully as a resource for those who are suffering.
Tish Vincent: Can you tell us a little bit about how prevalent depression is in the legal community and what’s different about the legal profession that influences the rates of depression?
Shawn Healy: Sure. So depression is sort of “common” among many professions among the human condition in general, but what we see in terms of rates of depression that are alarming in the legal community is that the general population is around — the prevalence is around 7-8% have depression.
And among lawyers, the recent study, I think one of your previous podcast guest Patrick Krill was talking about the Hazelden/CoLAP Study, they found that 28% of lawyers reported levels of depression. So compared to 7 or 8, that’s pretty significant, and obviously there are other high stress professions where depression is high, but that’s alarming to have a rate of depression at 28%.
And what we also see in law schools is that law students have a rapidly increasing rate of depression throughout law school, where they look like the general population when they start and then as the years of law school go on, it rapidly increases from 7-8% at the start, to close to 40% by the end of law school. And obviously, there is a decrease in that rate down to 28%, but it’s still quite alarming.
Tish Vincent: It is alarming.
Shawn Healy: Yeah. And there are lots of things that contribute to that. Obviously there is just the normal stressors of life and figuring things out that affect all of us, but I think among the legal profession, it’s unique in that a lot of lawyers sort of adopt the identity of a problem solver and they are comfortable in that role of helping people and solving their problems, but they are not necessarily as aware of their own issues. They are not as inwardly focused as would be helpful.
And so sort of taking on that identity as a problem solver too much means that you are just focused on other people and then you neglect yourself, but given — depending on the person and the setting, there are things like high levels of competition that can influence depression, an adversarial environment if you are in litigation, things like the impostor syndrome, where people are afraid that they are sort of not living up to expectations and they are afraid that people will find out that they don’t really belong or they can’t really hack it.
As well as, I tell lots of groups of attorneys, many lawyers are working with at-risk populations, where they are hearing really difficult stories, whether that’s in immigration or family law or in the juvenile courts and they are hearing this really heavy material, these stories, these traumatic experiences over and over and over again, but they are not trained on how to set boundaries with that, how to protect themselves from vicarious trauma, how to use resources and supports to offset that weight. And as a result, their intention is to help actually get them closer to a point of crisis because they are constantly outward focused and they are not taking care of themselves.
JoAnn Hathaway: So Dr. Healy, what would you say is the difference between depression and just feeling down and discouraged?
Shawn Healy: So we all have fluctuations in our mood. There are days when everybody feels better than other days or are down the dumps. That’s normal. If you don’t feel that way, then that’s a different issue. So those fluctuations are normal.
The distinction between sort of everyday normal low mood or discouragement versus a clinical experience like depression is that the symptoms are more intense. So the low mood is a very low mood that affects your thinking, so you become pessimistic, your thoughts become hopeless, you might consider suicide, it will affect your energy, you will have less energy, you will feel less motivation, it will affect your cognitive functioning, like your concentration, your memory, your focus.
It also affects you physically; changes in appetite, changes in sleep, feeling fatigue, digestion problems, those are all common experiences of depression, as well as a loss of interest in the things that you once found pleasurable.
So when things like that happen and for a prolonged period of time and it’s resistant to things changing in your environment; so if you felt discouraged because work wasn’t going well, but then a week later work is going well, but you are still feeling the same as the previous week, that’s the experience of your symptoms being resistant to positive changes.
So those sort of things are important to pay attention to as opposed to just waiting it out, whereas a normal low mood, an everyday low mood, typically time changes it or when your experiences change or something pleasurable happens that will affect your mood. But when that doesn’t happen, when those changes are slow to occur or don’t occur at all, then that’s more problematic.
Tish Vincent: So if that mood persists, no matter what, would you say it’s a good idea to seek some help, someone that you can talk to, a professional or maybe your doctor?
Shawn Healy: Absolutely. I think obviously when you are at a point where it feels like a crisis, when you are at a point where it feels like nothing is changing and the way things are is not how you want them to be going forward, that’s always a good time to seek help, whether that be through someone at work, a trusted friend, family member, your primary care doctor, a therapist, psychiatrist, there are lots of options for appropriate supports in those situations. And also like starting with one and then going to the others is also a good idea, so don’t just start with one and then if it doesn’t change, don’t give up.
But even before you get to that point, like utilizing those supports before you feel like you are at a crisis point is an excellent idea, because you are more likely to prevent yourself from getting to a crisis point or feeling like the wait is unmanageable. And then whenever you are experiencing depression to this degree, that’s going to affect every area of your life. So it’s not just going to be your work, but it’s going to be your personal life, your hobbies, your social life. So getting help and addressing these things long before it gets to a crisis point is always the best course of action.
JoAnn Hathaway: Are there any preventive techniques that lawyers can practice to ward off depression?
Shawn Healy: Absolutely. For a certain number of people, they have recurring episodes of depression, so some people think that that is not necessarily completely avoidable, but you can definitely influence the intensity of that in the same way that we all have mood changes and you can do things to help those fluctuations or not.
In terms of preventing depression, there is lots of things that are just good for us in general that have direct effects on our mood. So I think a good place to start is just increasing your awareness of how you are feeling. So mindfulness is a great practice to get yourself in tune with your present moment.
What you are thinking, what you are feeling, what your body is telling you, your emotional experience, your physical experience, but just to be in tune with what you are actually experiencing in the moment, and then that can increase your awareness of how your experiences in life are affecting you. And once you have that awareness, then you can utilize other things when you need them to ward off more serious effects of stress.
So things like, I always start with the sleep. Sleep is usually at the top of my list. So good sleep hygiene. Having a good sleep routine is a great preventative exercise, so to speak. So getting good regular sleep each night, having time to shut things down and give your brain a rest before you get to bed, having a predictable routine with preparing for bed, prioritizing sleep over other activities.
We often have this idea that I can be more productive if I just give up sleep. If only I didn’t need to sleep, then I could get so much done. But the reality is without good sleep, everything we try to do is not going to be at our highest level, it’s going to be affected, so getting good sleep.
Having hobbies is really important, and again, all these things actually increase your effectiveness at work. So we often think of these things as distractions from work, but they are actually aid to our work.
JoAnn Hathaway: That’s a good way to put it and to think about it.
Shawn Healy: Yeah.
JoAnn Hathaway: Dr. Healy, I have heard some people express concerns that actually talking about depression will make people more depressed, is that a true risk?
Shawn Healy: I think there is one particular way where that could be a risk and that’s if you talk about depression as a hopeless situation, and I have never heard anyone talk about it that way who is trying to raise awareness of it, but when you talk about depression, you are not going to increase someone’s depression. If you are talking about depression in terms of this is a normal experience that people encounter, there are risk factors, there are things that you can do about it, you are not the only one who is experiencing this and there is hope.
So when you talk about depression and that whole picture, you are not going to increase someone’s risk of depression, you are going to do the opposite. You are going to let that person know that they are not alone, that they are not flawed or weak because they are experiencing depression. You are going to educate them about resources and preventative things that they can do and that’s going to increase their sense of control in their life and also give them hope.
So I know sometimes people want to think that if you just don’t address something magically, it will get better, but through my experiences in my work here, that’s the exact opposite of what happens. The more that you ignore it, the more that you try to hope that it changes magically, it actually gets worse.
JoAnn Hathaway: We often hear that there is still a persistent stigma when it comes to mental health conditions and treatment for mental health, how do you see that stigma affecting those in the legal profession?
Shawn Healy: Yeah. I think that’s a — that is still a problem, absolutely. There is still a stigma about mental health care, about therapy. I think that’s changing over time. I remember back when The Sopranos were on and the fact that Tony Soprano saw a psychiatrist was like groundbreaking. They said wow, a tough mobster can see a therapist and therefore, maybe I can too, because we are all tough mobsters at heart.
So I think there are things that are occurring in our culture that are changing that stigma slowly. However, it’s no question that that stigma still exists, particularly in the legal field. I think it has to do with sort of adversarial and competitive nature of law and just this idea that if you show weakness, then somebody else who is not showing that particular weakness is going to get the job or get the client or prevail in that legal matter. So there is definitely this fear that if you show any weakness, if you admit any weakness, it’s going to be exploited, and partially that’s true because that’s a legal strategy in a courtroom to recognize a weakness in your opponent’s case and then try to exploit it.
So that fear is rooted in reality, but at the same time, the more that people can sort of own their experience and talk about their experiences as normal, and not only is this something that’s part of my story, but this is what I am doing to address it, then it becomes a story of resilience and not a story of weakness.
In the same way that if I had a thumb injury and it was causing me pain and I couldn’t type, me going to a doctor and figuring out what the problem is, getting treatment for that wouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness on my part; it would be seen as oh, you are smart, you recognize the problem, you identified a resource and you took advantage of that resource to make yourself stronger and more effective in the future.
So obviously we can say that or I can say that sort of lightly as if that’s all you have to do and all of a sudden stigma will change, but the reality is, it’s going to take time, and the more that people in my profession and in your profession, the more that we sort of draw attention to the importance of wellness, of self-care, of addressing the lawyer and law student as a person, the more that this will just become normal as part of our typical language and then eventually that stigma will start to fade.
JoAnn Hathaway: Now, you had mentioned that law students as a group experience depression more acutely than practicing lawyers and many law students fear that if they report depression to character and fitness, it’s going to harm their application. Can you speak to those concerns and is there any advice you would have to offer?
Shawn Healy: Sure. So my advice to law students is always, first and foremost, get to know the Bar application of the state that you are going to be applying to. There is a lot of misconceptions about what is involved in a character and fitness portion of the Bar exam, and it varies state by state. So that would be my first recommendation is just be aware of what it is that they will be asking for so that you know.
Now, the second thing is we tell law students all the time like the idea of waiting to get help until after you apply for the Bar, just so that you don’t have to tell anybody is a terrible, terrible idea, on a couple of fronts.
So one, delaying getting help for something, so that you don’t have to tell somebody will just make that issue worse, regardless of what it is, and that’s going to affect your performance in law school, your well-being, your satisfaction in life and that’s not going to be good for you.
The other thing is that when you have a need and you are able to identify that need, identify a resource and take advantage of that resource, that actually makes you look like a more competent professional. So if in the course of the character and fitness portion you have to talk about treatment, whether that be for addiction or mental health, we always tell people to talk about it as a badge of honor, as a part of your story that demonstrates your resilience instead of trying to minimize or rush over it like oh, that’s not a problem, say like, yeah, this is what was true for me and this is how I dealt with it, and that actually demonstrates professional competence more than someone who says, no, never needed any help whatsoever, I am good to go.
Because the people in Massachusetts, the Board of Bar Examiners here, the people that I have talked to, who worked there, they are not under the delusion that applicants are perfect people, so someone presenting as I have got no problems, that’s not an impressive thing, one doesn’t believe them. But they are also not going to think that someone who has a problem and has got help for that problem is a flawed human being. They are going to think oh, you know how to handle stuff that comes up and therefore when you are a lawyer, I have greater confidence in you that you are going to be able to handle things that come up.
So again, I say as if it’s easy.
JoAnn Hathaway: Something I have seen is that the character and fitness panel members will look more favorably on someone that identified a problem early in their law school career and got help for it rather than waited to the last minute when they are applying for the Bar and then tried to demonstrate quickly some difficulties need some time to show that you coped with it, would you agree with that?
Shawn Healy: Absolutely. So in that example, like if someone waits until right before they apply for the Bar, obviously on the other side of that it’s going to look like you are just doing it for show, whether you are or not, it’s going to look like I am just doing this to make my application look a little better, which is easy to see or at least infer that you are doing it for show, whereas if you address a problem early on in law school or early the better, when you recognize that there is a problem and you address it and then you have a track record of addressing it, that just strengthens your story and it makes you look much more responsible and competent to the examination board.
Tish Vincent: I have another question, prospective associates, people who are looking for a job and interviewing at some of the large firms sometimes fear that if they ask about wellness programming at a job interview, they will immediately lose any chance of being considered for that job. Do you have any advice you could offer them?
Shawn Healy: Yeah. I think in a big way it depends on how you ask about things like that. Like in any interview, the way that you inquire about firm culture or benefits or supports, the way you ask about it is going to influence how that comes across more than asking about it.
So if I am being interviewed and I ask, so what are you going to do for me, as an interviewee that sounds, oh, you sound arrogant, or you don’t sound like you are going to be committed to your work, you are just all about yourself. Versus if you ask about something as a way to sort of demonstrate that you are going to be a stronger associate because of that thing.
So for example, if you reference science that says getting solid sleep actually increases your performance than talking about boundaries or the firm’s priorities on work-life balance, you can sort of associate that or tie that to research that says you are going to be more profitable or you are going to be more effective because you know what’s going to influence your productivity.
In the same way that you could ask about wellness programming that’s offered, not just as a question of what is the firm going to do for me, but you could ask about wellness programming in terms of, I have heard that mindfulness and stress management and time management make associates more productive, are there programs like that that you offer, and if not, is the firm open to me starting that or offering that or researching that so that that’s a resource for me and other associates? So you are asking about it, but you are also offering to invest in the firm itself.
Tish Vincent: So you are offering to bring something to the firm or to participate in something if it’s already there?
Shawn Healy: Yeah. And the more the people ask about wellness programming, it just becomes like a normal thing that people ask about, even though law firms and agencies are slow to change in many ways, like the mantra, well, this is how we have always done it is kind of like their go-to slogan. If people keep asking about it, then they are going to pick up on the shift that oh, people are interested in this, this is important to applicants, and eventually hopefully they will get on board with this is what we need to do to attract better applicants.
In the same way that law firms adopt technology, because oh, here are some changes that are occurring with this technology. This will actually make us more profitable and more productive.
You can talk about wellness in the same way, where there’s lots of research out there that talks about the effects of mindfulness, time management, things like that, where that will translate to profitability, which unfortunately, that’s what law firms are about, about profit.
JoAnn Hathaway: That’s why they are there.
Shawn Healy: Exactly. So it’s their business and they are not going to — I don’t think they want to be seen as a spa or a retreat center; they want you to see them as a business. So if you can talk about your wellbeing being directly connected to their business success, then you are talking about it in a different way.
And then there is also sort of a roundabout way of asking about wellness programming, which is to find somebody who works there, who is not interviewing you, but find other associates who work there and ask them what it’s like to work there, what the billing requirements are, what the turnover rate is, and also what that associate’s plan is for the next few years. So the more that you get the on the ground perspective, then that’s going to give you a pretty good idea of what it’s going to be like to work there.
Tish Vincent: That’s a good idea.
JoAnn Hathaway: Excellent. Well, it looks like we have come to the end of our show. We would like to thank our guest today Dr. Shawn Healy for a wonderful program.
Tish Vincent: Shawn, if our guests would like to follow up with you, how can they reach you?
Shawn Healy: They can email me at [email protected].
JoAnn Hathaway: Thank you Shawn.
Shawn Healy: Thank you for having me.
JoAnn Hathaway: We enjoyed the conversation and I am sure our listeners will too.
This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast. I am Jo Ann Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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