Time for the Profession to Talk about Depression

In any given year, according to StatsCan, approximately 5% of the population will experience a major episode of depression. Almost 10% of us will suffer from such an illness at some point in our lives. Depression is the fastest rising medical diagnosis in Canada and accounts for over 11 million doctor visits a year. Add to this burden on our system the lost work productivity and it is clear depression is an issue that needs to be addressed as a society at the macro level. However, on a micro level, the legal profession is even worse off. It is estimated by some studies that lawyers will suffer depression at 3 times the rate of the population at large, yet are far less likely to seek treatment for it.

As lawyers, we are entrusted with our clients’ most significant assets, from their liberty, their access to their children, their finances, and their businesses. Their problems become our problems. There are the expectations (often of others in our lives) of a particular lifestyle, the very real pressures of billing, long hours away from family and friends, the increasing expectation with technological advances that we must always be available and that everything needs to be done yesterday. Not to mention for litigators an increasing lack of civility on more and more files. As such, the most surprising thing about the recent statistics is that the numbers are not higher.

The potential to cause costly and often irreparable harm when our own mental health issues prevent us from dealing with our clients’ matters and our law practices timely and appropriately cannot be overstated. Yet the fear of “coming out” as someone suffering from depression is terrifying to most lawyers. I remember thinking when I was suffering some years ago, “These people are trusting me to solve their problems and I can’t even handle my own life. What will everyone think of me? My clients, my colleagues, my sources of referral. Will they all turn against me, blacklist me, be afraid to deal with me? Will the Law Society get involved?” This is what is going through the minds of hundreds of lawyers at this very moment.

As a profession we need to recognize this problem and deal with it in terms of education, understanding and a change in mindset about how we view ourselves as lawyers. This has to start with the law schools, the Law Society, the large firms, and the most senior and successful members of the Bar. We need to pay more than lip service to the concept of work/life balance, accept new economic realities, and learn to see our jobs as an integral part of our lives, but not our defining trait.  Most importantly, the stigma of depression needs to be lifted. It is time for all those of us who have suffered, overcome our difficulties, and thrived,  to come out for the benefit of those still suffering in silence. It needs to be seen as strength of character to say “I need help” as opposed to weakness of will.