Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Lawyers and depression, substance abuse and suicide: Reported by Jack Ferm

Studies show high rates of attorney depression, substance abuse, and suicide. .. Related to the stress of litigation practice, many attorneys are on the verge of a stress overload. This overload becomes obvious from a perusal of their pleadings and how they respond to an opponent in litigation practice.

At a seminar in Orlando entitled “Practicing with Professionalism” Michael Cohen, Executive Director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, presented the first session, entitled “Chemical Dependency/Stress.” He opened with his own story of substance abuse and recovery — instant credibility, a spellbinding tale of breakdown and recovery …the entire room stopped to listen to Mr. Cohen’s story and its lesson.
Mr. Cohen presented some startling statistics about attorney substance abuse, depression, and suicide rates; here are the figures he presented:
  • 15-18% of attorneys will have substance abuse problem vs. 10% of general population.
  • Over 1/3 of attorneys say they are dissatisfied and would choose another profession if they could.
  • Attorneys have the highest rates of depression and suicide of any profession.
He also cited a study of Canadian lawyers that showed suicide to be the third leading cause of death for attorneys, behind only cancer and heart disease, studies show that 51% of lawyers experience stress at higher levels than the “normal” population.
These studies reveal a crisis point for practicing lawyers. They indicate that the way many approach practice just isn’t working, in fact it creates stress levels that can kill or at a minimum create an atmosphere where the attorney will give up his practice and seek a different profession
Perhaps the law attracts people who are intrinsically more susceptible to substance abuse or emotional issues. But lifestyle and the pressures of today’s practice have a lot to do with these findings.
This author is not suggesting that most lawyers are headed for depression, drug or alcohol addiction, or suicide. But I do submit that many lawyers are stressed out. And, more importantly, I suggest that there are enough pressures on lawyers, especially lawyers who are fairly new to the practice, that it’s critical to be aware of the danger signals for these disorders.
Recognizing the Danger signals of stress
Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response.
But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.
It’s important to learn how to recognize when your stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feels familiar even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll.
The signs and symptoms of stress overload can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, and every lawyer experiences stress differently.

Stress doesn’t always look stressful

Psychologist Connie Lillas uses a driving analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond when they’re overwhelmed by stress:
  • Foot on the gas – An angry or agitated stress response. You’re heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
  • Foot on the brake – A withdrawn or depressed stress response. You shut down, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.
  • Foot on both – A tense and frozen stress response. You “freeze” under pressure and can’t do anything. You look paralyzed, but under the surface you’re extremely agitated.

Signs and symptoms of stress overload

The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.
Stress Warning Signs and Symptoms
Cognitive Symptoms
Emotional Symptoms
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Agitation, inability to relax
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness
Physical Symptoms
Behavioral Symptoms
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds
  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing
PLEASE NOTE: Depression, substance abuse, and any suicidal thoughts are best addressed with the help of counselors who are trained and certified.
If you or any lawyer you know needs help, overcoming these challenges. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), 24 Hours a day. Please call them if you are in crisis.