Updated: Oct. 8, 2021

Depression is the second most commonly diagnosed mental health disorder affecting approximately 10% of the public and 28% of lawyers, according to a 2016 study. While everyone feels down at times, depression is defined by a pronounced state of negative mood for at least two weeks and consisting of at least five of the diagnostic criteria listed below.

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
  • Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
  • A slowing down of thought and a reduction of physical movement (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down).
  • Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.
  • Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt, or a specific plan for committing suicide.

While sadness in life is inevitable, depression tends to appear when one blames themselves for being sad. It can be a reflection of a legal professional’s overburdened sense of responsibility and stresses of the job. Depression usually begins as a reckoning of one’s ultimate lack of worthiness or value as a person. Subsequent thoughts of hopelessness, lack of competence, or inadequacy in relationships often follow. When negative thoughts continue unabated, physical symptoms tend to appear beginning with impairments in concentration. Some may have a more sedentary depression characterized by oversleeping, overeating, and lethargy, while others experience more anxious presentations characterized by insomnia, undereating, and agitation.

Treating Depression

When necessary, addressing suicidal thoughts is the most critical starting point. Many of the thoughts that appear with depression need to be expressed in order to be managed, thus psychotherapy is an important starting point to treat depression. Also, re-engaging in activities previously enjoyed, such as exercise or hobbies, is particularly important to address the diminished pleasure component (anhedonia). Medication can be effective in treating depression. In fact, primary care physicians write more than 80% of mood-disorder prescriptions, reducing the barriers to care.

How Depression Affects Lawyers

Beginning in law school, lawyers learn to resolve problems by themselves. Unfortunately, depression can be a sign of an over burdened sense responsibility. Larry Richards’s study of the Lawyer Personality found that the top five personality traits defining lawyers include skepticism, urgency, autonomy, lack of sociability, and lack of resilience (Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed). These qualities can be a veritable petri dish for depression. Asking for help and self-compassion are key solutions for this dilemma. Please consider this TED Talk on Self Compassion by Kristin Neff.