Day-to-day reality of depression may not look like you think
Even though I was a psychology major in college, it caught me off guard when my therapist said I had high-functioning depression. I didn’t feel sad, I just felt numb. I was emotionally detached from myself and others. Yet, I told myself I was fine because I woke up each morning, showered, got dressed, showed up to work, did everything I needed to and went to the gym before heading home at the end of the day. Treatment involved a combination of talk therapy, a low-dose antidepressant for six months and a lot of self-care.
When I am doing my presentations on lawyer well-being, I make a point to talk about the many faces of depression. Sure, for some, depression can look as you might imagine: the inability to function or fulfill one’s daily responsibilities and to be in a constant state of gloom. But this isn’t true for everyone. As you’ll see from the stories below, there are many faces to depression and many paths for getting better.
Don’t Go It Alone
Stuart Mauney, a partner at Gallivan, White & Boyd in Greenville, South Carolina, started experiencing signs of depression in 1992 after handling a case that was particularly challenging. He had less energy and lost interest in most things. He was irritable and had trouble concentrating and making decisions. Mauney describes waking up each morning more tired than when he went to bed. Even though he would be at work for hours, he wasn’t accomplishing what he needed to do.
Mauney finally confided in his wife, who was very understanding and encouraged him to seek professional help. He saw a psychiatrist and went on antidepressants. “Depression is a forever illness—it is for me … It’s a medical problem,” Mauney says. “I was sick, and I got help.”
When the depression affected his productivity at work, he knew he had to talk to the managing partner about what was going on. “I was fighting for my job.” He told the managing partner he was getting better and getting help.
Mauney was also being considered for partner. “The firm extended by six months the timing in which they were going to consider me. I became a partner, and I’m still at the firm.”
Over time, he’s incorporated other techniques for maintaining his well-being. “I started meditating regularly. It’s about learning to control my thoughts and looking for the middle ground in a situation.”
Mauney is now a frequent speaker on the topic of lawyer mental health and depression.
Rebecca Amster, a lawyer and marriage and family therapist in Florida, started experiencing depression after the birth of her son. “I had to go through a redefinition of who I was. I thought of myself as a black-suit, red-lipstick, high-heel-wearing divorce litigator. Then suddenly, I became a mom.” This shift seemed inconsistent with her past persona of always being organized. So it came as a shock to realize she “didn’t even have a jacket that fit because I was breastfeeding.”
When her son was about 13 weeks, Amster went to her OB-GYN, who administered a 10-question mental health checklist. One of the questions was about suicide and harm to the baby. She recalls thinking: “I can’t commit suicide because I have to be good for the baby. There was this guilt. I can’t hurt myself because it would be bad for the baby.” She now knows this is typical of postpartum depression.
Her doctor prescribed Prozac in the smallest dose. She was on it for six months. During this time, she regained her footing. “I found who I was.” She also gained perspective about work and motherhood. “As my definition of self changed from hard-core litigator to a whole self-definition of mom, lawyer and a person, my ability to cope with everything also shifted and grew.”
Amster believes attorneys would benefit from having supervision similar to those in the mental health profession. “Therapists have therapists. We have someone we can talk to. Not just about strategy, but I can talk to my supervisor about a difficult case and talk about emotions. Peer support is important, and if you can’t get peer support, I really feel that an attorney should get a therapist.”
Amster also finds relief through long-distance running. “I’ve learned that if you have a problem you can’t solve after running 10 miles, then it can’t be solved, and I should let that problem go.”
A Lifelong Secret
Orlando Da Silva has been practicing law for 24 years. He spent 11 years at one of Canada’s largest firms, and 13 years in the public sector, most recently as a senior prosecutor in the Serious Fraud Office in Toronto. Da Silva has been experiencing severe depression since he was 9 years old and kept it a secret for 37 years.
In 2007, he ran for Parliament. His marriage broke down, he lost the election, and after 15 months of a severe depressive episode, Da Silva attempted suicide by taking 180 sleeping pills and drinking two bottles of wine. He only survived because he somehow managed to speed-dial his estranged wife, and she called 911.
After the suicide attempt, Da Silva was hospitalized for three months but didn’t tell anyone because of the stigma. He was afraid it would hurt his career and that he wouldn’t get the same types of cases. He feared he would lose friends, that his family would love him less.
In 2014, he was selected as the president of the Ontario Bar Association. He wanted to fight the stigma by demonstrating in a senior role that it’s possible to have a successful career despite depression. “I wanted to give hope to others. Especially young lawyers. I wanted to make it easier to disclose mental health issues.”
Da Silva stresses that it’s possible to be successful at work, despite depression. “I’ve done 35 trials during depressive episodes.” His treatment has involved various medications, seeing a psychiatrist, going to group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and electroconvulsive therapy. His depression is treatment-resistant, which he says isn’t unusual for someone who has experienced depression since childhood. “I think it’s something I’ll always have and something I’ll always have to manage—by force of will if nothing else.”
He gets through the tough times by reminding himself that “when it’s episodic, I know one day it will end. I’ve written a letter to myself when I am feeling better—reminding myself there are brighter days ahead. I know it’s temporary.”
A Medical Issue
Erin Atkins is a criminal defense and criminal appeals lawyer in Huntsville, Alabama. She started experiencing depression in law school. She was working all day then attending school in the evening. “It was a lot of pressure. I tend to be a perfectionist and expect a lot of myself. Initially, I sought help for anxiety. Anxiety and depression go hand in hand. I was burning the wick on both ends.”
Her depression also made her feel as though she was failing spiritually. “I thought I should be able to pray this away.” The doctor reassured her that it was not a deficiency in faith, but rather a medical issue.
Atkins’ doctor started her on medication. After law school, she went off the medication in order to start a family. About a year ago, the same symptoms were resurfacing. “Life felt overwhelming. I have two kids, and I’m self-employed, running my own law practice. I was trying to do it all. It was very hard. I felt like everything was impossibly hard to do.” She went back to her doctor and went back on the medication.
Self-care is an important part of maintaining her well-being. “I started running again over a year-and-a-half ago because I got on a high-profile capital murder case that was emotionally draining.” She’s also learned to say “no” more. “I do more time management and rely on others for help. I tell my husband I need a timeout to go take a bath, go for a run, spend time with friends or take alone time. I made myself more of a priority.”
These stories illustrate that as a profession, we can and should do more to break down the stigma associated with mental health issues. We should be willing to acknowledge that even though we are lawyers, we are also human, subject to the human condition, which includes depression.
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco. This article was published in the April 2019 ABA Journal magazine with the title "The Many Faces of Depression: The day-to-day reality of the disease may not look like you think."