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How could someone like me ever struggle with depression?

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Hayley Myers, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

I struggle with depression. Honestly, I never thought I would say those words. I have a family member who struggles with depression, but I always thought that there is no way I could ever get depression. I mean come on, I am a successful law student, a happily married woman, and a dog mom to four wonderful pups. How could someone like me ever struggle with depression?

Depression hit me out of nowhere. One day I just woke up and had lost all motivation and felt like a failure. I felt like I was trapped in a dark and crippling cycle. After a month of walking through life like a zombie, I slowly began to recognize that I was struggling with depression. Once I was able to put a name to my struggles, I was able to get the help I need and begin to come back to life.

I am not alone in this battle with depression. In 2016, the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation conducted a survey and found that 28% of lawyers surveyed struggled with some level of depression and 17% of law students surveyed struggled with some level of depression. Unfortunately, depression is not the only problem the legal profession is facing.

Several lawyers also struggle with substance abuse. I honestly cannot think of another profession that is so revolved around alcohol. My husband, not a lawyer, was shocked at how many law school events provide copious amounts of alcohol. As a summer associate, I was shocked at how many work events included alcohol or took place at bars. Law schools set students up for alcohol addiction and our big firm jobs continue to encourage that behavior.

Luckily, members in the legal profession have begun to recognize that there is a problem. There are several lawyer assistance programs and online resources designed to help lawyers who struggle with depression and substance abuse. As helpful and as great as these solutions are, they are trying to pick up the pieces after the damage has been done. What if we tried to solve the problem before the damage is done? What if we took the time to change the law firm environment and make it a place that attorneys enjoy working every single day? There is not a catch-all solution for this problem because every law firm is different. However, firms could take some steps to become a more “well-being” focused organization.

Law firms already have several committees and groups, so they could add a committee for lawyer well-being. This group could survey the firm and see how many attorneys are struggling with depression and substance abuse. This group could also send out weekly emails that include resources for attorneys who are struggling. For example, at Vanderbilt, we receive weekly announcements and on those announcements there is a column entitled “Wellness Update.” This small update is an excellent reminder of the resources out there, but its regularity helps to break down the stigma attached to depression and substance abuse. A similar email in a law firm could begin to change the firm culture. This group could also host firm events that educate the lawyers of the signs of depression and substance abuse and provide support for members within the firm.

Law firms could also stop hosting events that revolve around alcohol. Some firms offer “firm drinks” every week. So, every week, attorneys at the firm are encouraged to go to a bar to let off some steam. Law firms clearly understand that stress is a problem and they are encouraging their employees to de-stress with alcohol. Maybe instead law firms could offer firm meditation, firm coffee break, firm tea time, firm movie night, firm baking night, and etc. The possibilities of non-alcoholic firm events are endless. These events would still allow attorneys to relax, get to know the other attorneys in the firm, and remove the alcohol from the situation.

Attorneys would also benefit from having a moment to take a breath each day at work. Regardless of how much work they have, attorneys have no excuse for not taking literally a minute to just sit and breathe. Lawyers potentially could be more efficient if they take a minute to pause during their day. At Vanderbilt, I take a Legal Problem Solving Class. This class starts at 5:00 in the evening, so I am already pretty exhausted and worn out from the day. We start each class with a Mindfulness Minute, some students take this time to do breathing exercises to refocus, others just sit silently. I know that after that minute of breathing I am refreshed and ready to take on the next two hours of class. For one minute, I get two hours of focused and productive work.

Those who struggle with depression and substance abuse are in a battle. The least law firms could do is to provide an environment that does not continue to hold an attorney down. Law firms should value mental health and encourage the attorneys to take care of their mental health. Law firms should encourage attorneys to take some “me-time” everyday.

My battle with depression is ongoing, but there are some things I do every day to make sure I am taking care of myself. I have a daily yoga practice and play with my dogs uninterrupted for at least 30 minutes a day. I also plan one movie night with my husband each week and do agility training with one of my dogs for fun. That schedule is helping me and my mental health. What do you need to add to your day to help take care of your mental health?