I am one of many lawyers who struggle with major, clinical depression. I say “many” because according to the 2016 Hazelden Betty Ford/ABA study, 28 percent of attorneys report mild or higher levels of depression, which is much higher than the general population. Another recent study found that law students are also struggling at rates higher than normal. Odds are good that someone you know is struggling and may not have told anyone. This may be especially true as COVID-19 changes our ability to personally interact with others and the paradigm of what connection means.
I often get asked whether my depression stemmed from my addiction issues. When my problem drinking and addiction to cocaine were front and center, it was difficult to separate the depression from the substance use. I vividly remember that horrendous day in July of 2005, when my two brothers, alerted that I was in a suicidal state of mind, came into my home. I had a .45 automatic on my nightstand. Drugs and alcohol were everywhere. As we left the house to take me to a local psychiatric facility, I heard my younger brother say that I needed treatment for addiction. My older brother said that it was the depression that was the issue. They were both right. While the issues were certainly intertwined before I went into recovery, there is no question that for me they also exist independently with the clinical depression setting in long before alcohol and drugs became problems, dating back to my early teen years.
My mental state as a teenager, in part, would probably be diagnosed today as clinical depression, although I was not diagnosed with it then. It was a different era, and my parents would never have thought to seek help for me. Depression and mental illness, in general, were not as widely discussed as they are today and not concepts your average Baby Boomer teen in suburban Pennsylvania would’ve been comfortable raising with parents, friends, or teachers. Depression was something that was supposed to be handled in private. In silence. In loneliness, so you didn’t spread your “sadness” to others. That is how I experienced depression for many decades. As something shameful and secretive.
Today, almost 13-years into my recovery from drugs and alcohol, I still must manage the depression with both therapy and medication. During this COVID-19 crisis, my therapy sessions are by Skype. Would I rather it not be that way? Of course. May it always be that way? Possibly. That’s okay as well. Depression is NOT a choice.
Perhaps if the awareness of mental health that exists today had existed when I was a teen, someone might have reached out earlier. For instance, when I began to self-isolate for long stretches of time — my solace was my bedroom where I would spend many hours alone, playing my favorite board game, Strat-O-Matic Baseball, with the family dog at my side. Or when seemingly pleasurable things — a trip to the amusement park with my grandmother, a nice word from a friend — would often leave me unmoved. The inability to articulate what I was feeling. But perhaps awareness alone wouldn’t have been enough. Even though there’s seemingly greater awareness of depression today, it can still be difficult for friends and family to discern the signs of depression or other mental-health struggles in our loved ones and legal colleagues. It can be just as difficult to acknowledge our own depression in a profession that discourages sharing of feelings as weakness and something to just “get over” or “pull ourselves out of.” Depression does not work that way.
As we deal with this unprecedented health crisis, please keep in mind that this added stress and anxiety can be a trigger to underlying mental health issues and trauma. This event is trauma in its own right. If you are struggling, please remember that your local Lawyer Assistance Program is not just about addiction. They are also there to help with depression and other mental health issues. If you are a law student, in many states, the LAP is also there for you. If not that, reach out to your Dean of Students. Utilize the Lawyers Depression Project. It is online and open to all in the profession and law school. In the Rooms has online support meetings. WECONNECT Recovery Meetings is another great source.
Finally, no degree, training, or education is required to use the one gift we all have. The ability to be part of a compassionate community. The ability to empathize and simply ask someone if they are feeling okay and let them know you are there to support them. It’s not a comfortable conversation and easier to say nothing, but it could be one the moment the person is ready to share their struggle.
Every day I take my medication. Every week I fire up Skype to speak with my psychiatrist. I allow myself to be vulnerable in sharing my past and present in a safe setting. I am not ashamed of either. I hope you won’t be either. Talking helps.
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.