I’ve been in practice for about 15 years, working with the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, or TLAP, and many people in the legal field, specifically around depression, addiction, and anxiety. I’m going to speak with you today about the shadow side of the legal profession as well as some of the signs and symptoms of addiction and depression. We’ll also talk about some of the dynamics of the legal profession that may make you or someone you care about more susceptible to depression or addiction.
Carl Jung was a clinical psychologist who believed that all human beings had a “shadow side.” He theorized that one of the keys to mental health was the ability to look at our shadow and incorporate it into our humanness. Thanks to TLAP and this panel, we are taking the opportunity to talk about the “shadow-side” of the legal profession in the spirit of addressing problems.
The truth is, the practice of law comes with some incredible rewards but also contains some realistic hardships. The incidence of substance abuse among lawyers is as much as double the national average. A 1990 study by Johns Hopkins University found that among more than 100 occupations studied, lawyers were the most likely to suffer from depression. Male lawyers in the U.S. are two times more likely to commit suicide than men in the general population according to a 1992 study by the National Institution for Occupational Safety and Health.
Why are legal professionals prone to addiction and other mental health concerns?
To understand why legal professionals are at high-risk, we need to be looking out for risk factors.
Since anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, I’d like to begin by shining a light on some of the anxieties within the legal profession. There are external forces and internal forces that are both at play.
Externally, people seek the advice of counsel because of their own worries or concerns. They may have anxiety related to directing the course of individuals’ lives or organizational direction, and they have the anxiety of the detail-oriented perfectionistic tasks of the profession.
Internally, many of the high achievement oriented personality types that may be drawn to the legal field to begin with can be more “type A” in nature, contributing to their own source of anxieties.
So, why is it a problem?
A problem develops when the effort it takes to navigate this environment is not balanced with an appropriate level of downtime, self-care, or rejuvenation. This seemingly benign emotion can snowball over time, leading to difficulties coping and ultimately resulting in depression or substance abuse.
I would invite each of you to examine your own temperament and anxiety level and make self-care a part of your professional priority.
There is a saying in the mental health field that says:
“What you Fire you Wire”…
There’s growing research in the field of neuroscience that suggests that our brains are much more malleable than we realize and that we are creating new neural pathways. From a neuroscience perspective, we are heavily influenced by the environment that we surround ourselves with.
From this perspective, legal work may be contributing to the creation of neural pathways that are not necessarily conducive to mental health. For example, 60+ hour work weeks or environments in which vulnerability (emotional or otherwise) is not always encouraged nor rewarded can affect mental health. In addition, trust can be seen as a hindrance to the practice of good law; You’re rewarded for finding flaws, being hyper-vigilant, closed and protected and for constantly looking for what can go wrong.
This can create mental health problems because of the demands it places on our abilities to cope. Furthermore, it can breed cynicism, which can spill over to other areas of your life, and, long-term, it can leave you feeling emotionally empty, which can lead to major depression or addiction.
Simply put, make sure you surround yourself with other energy, too. Find other outlets, so you don’t neglect these more vulnerable parts of yourself. Complement your life with other experiences i.e. family, volunteering, religious affiliation, kids, animals, artistic expression or psychotherapy – whatever you’re drawn to. The truth of the matter is that there is actually neuroscience to back up why these types of activities are important for mental health.
Some of the same skills that might make people gifted attorneys can be used against themselves. Skills such as shedding light on only what you want to see, rationalizing, and justifying can easily enable addictive behaviors. Those individuals with a propensity toward addiction can use their persuasive prowess to perpetuate addictive coping mechanisms.
Psychologically speaking, the substance is only the tip of the iceberg. The real concern with addiction is the habitual use of denial, rationalization, and justification to avoid our own emotional responsibility.
Substance abuse is not the only type of addiction. We can be equally addicted to technology, food, pornography, work, power, money, and sex – all of which can lead to self-destruction, interpersonal problems, and significant mental health problems.
My advice: listen to your emotional needs, hold yourself accountable, and do your best to have people in your lifeboat that will do the same.