Lawyers and Depression: A Greater Risk?

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Stressed at work

A career in the law can be challenging and rewarding, and thousands of law graduates join the profession each year in the hope of enjoying a long working life as a lawyer.

As well as the joys of working as a lawyer, there are also downsides to the profession.

Those downsides can have something to do with dealing with a wide variety of people in extremely intense situations, performance pressures including delivering in front of a Magistrate, Judge or Jury in the presence of your client, their family and the public, heavy workloads including at-least several dozen clients at any particular time and long working hours.

Working as a criminal defence lawyer is nothing like what’s presented in movies or on television shows– where a lawyer may have just 3 or 4 clients, will normally get a very high pay for seemingly little work, and will rarely be seen dealing with the intense pressures associated with the position or doing endless amounts of preparation including trawling through vast briefs of evidence, drafting endless applications and submissions, constantly dealing with professionals and others who are under great stress themselves.

It is very demanding job where a great deal is on the line every day.

But that’s why it’s such a stimulating, challenging and rewarding job – especially when you’re able to achieve great results for your clients.

The reality of working as a lawyer leads to a higher risk of depression and mental health problems than any other occupation, as a recent study by the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney into the link between lawyers and depression revealed.

According to the study, more than 55% of solicitors and 52% of barristers surveyed reported experiencing some form of depression at one stage or another, with many more stating that they knew someone close to them who was experiencing depression.

The results of the study showed that legal practitioners and students experience far higher levels of psychological distress than the average population.

Overall, 23% of solicitors said they experienced high levels of distress, compared to 9.2% of the general population.

What could be the cause of the high rate of depression?

The survey suggested a number of possible causes for the alarmingly high rates of depression among lawyers of all types.

These, it said, include the demands of the legal profession, the long hours, and the pressure that is commonly placed upon lawyers.

It also pointed out the competitiveness of the profession as well as the overall high-pressure culture that exists within it.

According to the Black Dog Institute, another contributing factor could be that people who are motivated to become lawyers are often high achieving, status conscious and perfectionists, which already makes them at a higher risk of depression regardless of any external work-related pressure.

In a bid to change the culture of the profession and reduce the rates of depression in legal practitioners, the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation released a number of best practice guidelines last year.

A team of legal professionals and advocates prepared the guidelines, which are voluntary, and the committee was chaired by Law Reform Commissioner Jill McKeough.

The aim of the guidelines is to reduce or remove some of the ingrained causes of the high rates of depression among lawyers by changing the organisational culture, workload management, and encouraging workplace recognition and rewards.

How does depression manifest itself in lawyers?

Signs of depression can manifest themselves in a number of ways, not all of them obvious.

Self-medication through use of alcohol and drugs is one sign of depression in lawyers.

Other indications include withdrawal, irritability, inability to focus, relationship problems, lack of self-care and suicidal thoughts.

The report also highlighted a general reluctance among members of the profession to seek professional help for mental health problems and depression.

According to the report, both practitioners and law students were more likely to ask for help for issues like depression from non-professional sources, including family and friends, or alternative therapies.

Some positives

The news is not all bad though.

Some other interesting information to come out of the survey included a reduced level of stigma against depression and psychological illness among lawyers compared to other professions.

Legal practitioners are also more likely to have undergone mental health training that many other occupations, which would make it easier for them to recognise if they or someone else around them was experiencing depression.

Mild depression often disappears without treatment, although this is not advisable, and around half of all people who experience an episode of depression will recover permanently and won’t get depressed again.

Whether or not the depression reoccurs depends largely on whether it is adequately treated the first time, so seeking professional help is always a good idea if you or someone you know is suffering from depression.

Although steps are being taken to reduce the alarmingly high rates of depression in the legal profession, it seems the problem isn’t going to disappear overnight.

Lawyers who are struggling with mental health issues should seek help from their GP or a not-for-profit organisation like Beyond Blue or the Black Dog Institute.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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