Perspectives: Lawyers, Anxiety, and Depression

By Bryan R. Welch, December 01, 2020

Well over half of all lawyers report having had depression or anxiety over the span of their legal career. Below, lawyers share their experience practicing law with anxiety or depression: the challenges they faced, what helped, and what they would like other lawyers to know.

At its most challenging, how did anxiety or depression impact you? 

  • One of the constant themes in my first few years of practicing law was the overwhelming anxiety that I was missing something in my analysis of an issue. Anxiety undercut my confidence and competence.
  • I felt frozen. I couldn’t answer the phone, open the mail, or check email. I knew I had to, but I didn’t care. Of course, the longer I put it off, the worse it got.
  • I felt a sense of hopelessness about ever having an engaged, meaningful, and peaceful life, and that this would never get any better. I had obsessive negative thoughts about everything − a lot of self-blame, and the belief that life wasn’t worth living.
  • When anxiety is at its worst, I can’t see anything good.  I see only where I caused all the problems or have no control over solving the problems.  Nothing is positive, including the positive things.  All things are negative.
  • I just didn’t care about anything. I felt blank and checked-out. I didn’t want to leave the house.
  • I felt so uncertain about everything, I would second-guess anything my brain would tell me. I couldn’t make decisions. My confidence eroded.
  • I felt a deep guilt for being present. I was certain that my friends, family, and clients would be better off without my presence in their life.

What encouraged you to seek help?

  • An acute set of life circumstances led to pain and sadness that became intolerable.
  • I’ve had bouts of depression for a long time. Depression had been a lifelong struggle. My family really wanted me to get help.
  • A colleague at work noticed I wasn’t doing well and reached out. He told me that he had seen a therapist for depression and thought it might help me, too.
  • I couldn’t tolerate the way I felt anymore. It was choose suicide or choose to get help. I have young kids, so suicide didn’t seem right.
  • I thought that I had failed in representing a particularly troublesome client and was having trouble sleeping, eating, or doing other work. When I told my PLF claims attorney, she referred me to the OAAP.

What challenges did you face in getting help for your depression or anxiety?

  • It was hard to ask for help because I really felt like I was the only one who felt this way and that other people wouldn’t or couldn’t understand. It turns out that wasn’t true.
  • It took a while to find the medication that worked for me, but persistence paid off.
  • Depression is the absence of any motivation to get up, move around, work, or even eat. That made it hard to reach out for help.
  • It was hard to find understanding at work. I didn’t feel like I could talk to my supervisor. I knew I needed help, but I also needed the money, so I decided to just suffer and hope it would go away. That was unsustainable.
  • I first struggled with the idea of taking medication; I felt I would be weak if I took medication for anxiety. I had the same feeling even after taking medication and knowing that it was helping. Getting over this feeling of weakness has been an ongoing challenge, but it’s so worth it.
  • I thought that everyone felt anxious and depressed but that everyone else was just better at handling those feelings than I was.

What do you find to be most helpful or supportive from the people nearest you?

  • Whenever anybody tries to help, that feels really good. But having people feel sorry for me is not helpful – even though they mean well.
  • Having acceptance and understanding is helpful. Some people couldn’t understand that my brain was different. If someone in your life has depression and anxiety, read about it and educate yourself. If you just go with your instincts, you might be wrong.
  • My therapist told me early on that they were holding hope for me until I could find hope for myself. That really meant a lot.
  • Having someone just be there for me. You don’t have to fix it – just be supportive. Laughter helps.

What are some things that are helpful to you in your recovery?

  • Talk therapy and changing lifestyle habits – social connection, proper food, good sleep, and exercise.
  • The ability to talk to friends and family about it. I am lucky to have a partner who is willing to listen and support me in my path to greater control over my anxiety and depression.
  • I have to remember that anxiety is a liar. It lies to me about my strengths, disguising my strengths as weakness and my weakness as proof that I’m a terrible person. It gets easier to remind myself that those things are, factually, not true.
  • Finding acceptance: It’s OK that I don’t always feel good. I don’t have to feel bad about feeling bad – it’s temporary.
  • Whether it’s what you do for fun, your social life, or your work, ask for what you need.
  • Exercise, changing scenery, grounding. Just noticing what’s happening in the moment.
  • I try to go for a walk, even if it is raining, and I drink water.
  • Sometimes the news gets me down. I always try to pull myself away from my computer to get a different perspective.
  • Doctor-prescribed anti-anxiety medication. However, my first prescription didn’t help; so keep going back until you feel your medication is working and you feel good.
  • I make a point of seeing my therapist regularly to ensure that I stay on track with my mental health.

How has recovery from anxiety and depression affected your personal and professional life?

  • I’m more understanding, a nicer person, and more accepting of others’ troubles. My understanding and experience gives me a better connection to humanity.
  • I’m less reserved with the people around me and more present with the people in my life. It’s easier to just be me.
  • My work life has definitely changed. Work was too stressful. I reorganized my life around non-profit activities that gave me purpose. I changed my lifestyle to reduce stress.
  • I’ve become clearer in my professional life that life is short, so I try to do more things that I enjoy and that are meaningful to me.
  • I’m more confident, and it’s easier to get work done. Being able to let go of some of my constant fears has helped me function better.
  • My practice has improved because I have better skills to cope with those troubling thoughts that jump in my mind to throw me off course.
  • When I saw anxiety for what it was, I leaned in and now ask people if there is something I’m missing. I don’t say it that way, of course. I ask clerks in administrative agencies if there is something that they wonder why I haven’t brought up. I ask clients if there is something that they expected to talk about that hasn’t been discussed yet. And I ask opposing counsel (after litigation!) if there was anything in particular “behind the curtain” they hadn’t shared before. Most times the answer is no, but in the rare situations when the answer is yes, I always learn something new, and it helps my anxiety.

Are there any suggestions you would give to a lawyer considering seeking help for anxiety or depression?

  • Go get help right away.  You don’t have to battle this on your own.  Life can be easier, and it will be once you get some help.
  • Keep working on it and don’t give up. You can find a path to feel better. Seek help. Sustained continuous effort.
  • Remember that it’s a medical condition and that with accurate diagnosis you get better treatment.
  • You can find a way to continue to work and get treatment.
  • Depression is treatable, and it takes effort and time to recover.
  • It comes in degrees; it’s manageable until it’s not. Work with it right away.
  • Your life is more important than your job.
  • Connecting with other people who have experienced the same thing is helpful. Find a group that you can join.
  • Talk to a therapist! Take that first step of being vulnerable, and you’ll see your hard work pay off.
  • I know it’s hard to reach out. There is help. It is effective. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Just reach out if you’re feeling any of this. Don’t give up.

My deep appreciation goes to the lawyers who took the time to share their thoughts with me for this article.

To talk to an attorney counselor about depression or anxiety, call the OAAP at 503.226.1057. Our services are confidential.

Bryan R. Welch, JD, CADC I

OAAP Attorney Counselor

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