Charlotte School of Law professor Brian Clarke has written a series of articles that I hope all of my students and colleagues and blog mates will consider reading (here and here and here). Professor Clarke has written about his own struggle with depression and supplied statistics on the high number of students and lawyers who grapple with this illness. He is the latest in the line of attorneys to come out to discuss depression and has made a particularly insightful and personal case for those who are struggling with the condition. (I am emailing the links to Professor Clarke’s writings to all of my students this term)
Every year, I speak to first year students in my torts sections about depression to make them aware of the statistics and why it is no longer a barrier to success in the legal profession. Clarke does a wonderful job in presenting those statistics with a personal authenticity and realism that makes this series a must read.
He feelings before being diagnosed with depression in 2005 are likely all too familiar for many in this and other professions:
“While I do not remember all of the details of my descent into the hole, it was certainly rooted in trying to do it all—perfectly,” he writes. “After my second child was born, I was trying to be all things to all people at all times. Superstar lawyer. Superstar citizen. Superstar husband. Superstar father. Of course, this was impossible. The feeling that began to dominate my life was guilt. A constant, crushing guilt. Guilt that I was not in the office enough because I was spending too much time with my family. Guilt that I was letting my family down because I was spending too much time at work. Guilt that I was letting my bosses down because I was not being the perfect lawyer to which they had become accustomed. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. The deeper I sunk into the hole, the more energy I put into maintaining my facade of super-ness and the less energy was left for either my family or my clients. And the guiltier I felt. It was a brutal downward spiral. Eventually, it took every ounce of energy I had to maintain the facade and go through the motions of the day. The facade was all there was. Suicide seemed rational.”
The statistics for law students have long been known within the academy. One of the most disturbing studies was done by Washington University Prof. Andy Benjamin (U. Wash.) that found that, by the spring of their 1L year, 32% of law students are clinically depressed. Yet, when those students entered, they had the same percentage as the population at large of roughly eight percent. That percentage rose to 40 percent by graduation but then dropped to to 17% two years after graduation. That is still higher than the national average. However, as we previously discussed, the estimate of the population at large continue to grow with the latest study suggesting that one out of ten Americans have depression.
Clarke cited Canadian figures showing how eleven percent of suicides are found to be lawyers and suicide remains the third leading cause of death for lawyers in the period studied from 1994 to 1996.
Clarke notes part of the problem can be traced to the type of work we do:
“Whatever the problem, the client is counting on the lawyer to fix it. Every lawyer I know takes that expectation and responsibility very seriously. As much as you try not to get emotionally invested in your client’s case or problem, you often do. When that happens, losing hurts. Letting your client down hurts. This pain leads to reliving the case and thinking about all of the things you could have done better. This then leads to increased vigilance in the next case. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, for some lawyers this leads to a constant fear of making mistakes, then a constant spike of stress hormones that, eventually, wear the lawyer down. The impact of this constant bombardment of stress hormones can be to trigger a change in brain chemistry that, over time, leads to major depression.”
He ends with message that I hope will be read by many:
“I write this because I know that when you are depressed you feel incredibly, profoundly alone. You feel that you are the only person on earth who has felt the way you do. You feel like no one out there in the world understands what you are dealing with. You feel like you will never feel ‘normal’ again.
But you are not alone.”
Source: ABA Journal