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Perfectionism, ‘Psychic Battering’ Among Reasons for Lawyer Depression

Posted Feb 18, 2009 10:40 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The likelihood of depression is 3.6 times higher for lawyers than other employed people, and the reasons include the pressures of the job and characteristics that make lawyers good at their jobs.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer interviewed experts on lawyer depression and substance abuse for a story on a Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association program raising awareness of lawyers' mental health issues. The story cites the figure for rates of depression and other evidence of psychological problems.

The Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program, formed to help alcoholic lawyers and judges, now finds itself dealing just as often with lawyers suffering from symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders and other problems, the story says. Of every five people who contact the program, two have psychological issues, one suffers from addiction, and two have both problems.

The mental health problems are reflected in lawyers’ suicide rates. A 1992 report by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that male lawyers had a suicide rate that was twice as high as men in general, the story says.

Experts told the newspaper about reasons for the high incidence of depression. Lawyers are taught to aim for perfection, to be aggressive and to be emotionally detached. They “intellectualize, rationalize and displace problems on others,” the newspaper explains. “They don't take direction particularly well. They tend to have fairly elaborate denial mechanisms. And they tend to challenge anything they're being told.”

Pessimistic lawyers tend to excel in their careers, but the same trait can create havoc in their personal lives, according to Martin Seligman, who directs the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center.

The Plain Dealer cites a 2002 article in the Michigan Bar Journal that highlights another problem; some lawyers, especially those in criminal and family law practices, deal with “psychic battering”—repeated exposure to bad human behavior.

Seligman advices lawyers to try “flexible optimism” in their private lives and to encourage settlements and mediation in their cases, the story says. Exercise and a good diet, outside hobbies, and nurturing relationships can also help, according to Tennessee Circuit Judge Robert Childers, chairman of the ABA's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.

Hat tip to Above the Law.

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