Coping With Despair

Cox, TomTom Cox, a friend, colleague and guest blogger provides a thoughtful response to some of the findings in the recently released ABA survey on mental health in the legal profession. 

Mike Ethridge has posted here about a recent study conducted by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation that documents distressingly high rates of depression and substance abuse among lawyers — particularly younger lawyers.  While reading Mike’s post, I realized to my dismay that the results of that study did not surprise me at all.  Have I (and other lawyers) come to accept the inevitability of a profession forever over-populated with depressed alcoholics?  Mike’s post challenged us to reconsider the “cope or quit” message we often communicate to young lawyers; i.e., that the law is a difficult profession and those who cannot deal with the pressures should get out.  But how do we eliminate and replace such a well-entrenched cultural message?  And how can lawyers (young and old) facing stress, isolation, anxiety or depression, cope with their present reality?

To be sure, practicing law can often be pressure-packed, mentally and emotionally demanding, and stressful, even for the strongest and healthiest person.  This is especially true for today’s young lawyers, who typically face, among other things, tight job markets, increased billable hour expectations, high attrition rates within firms, fewer partnership opportunities and less employment stability than in the past, and technological advances and cultural expectations that combine to require a lawyer’s instant and continuous availability to clients and colleagues.  The real surprise may be that the rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse are not even higher than what the ABA reports.

So how does a young lawyer (or any lawyer) cope with, much less flourish within, such an environment?  I believe that any satisfactory answer to this question must come both from outside and from inside each of us.  We first must recognize that, notwithstanding the cultural messages that call on us to function as independent, self-sufficient, and always-in-control “monads,” we lawyers – like all other human beings – face many problems, throughout our lives and careers, that exceed our individual capacities to resolve without support from and real connection with others.  Rather than indicating weakness, a willingness and ability to seek and obtain support in relationship with others in fact affirms our basic humanity.  Mike Ethridge has written eloquently (The Gifts of Imperfection) about the importance of our acknowledging and accepting our vulnerability; real connection and relationship with others require that we accept our commonly shared human needs.  Honestly and openly acknowledging to ourselves and those closest to us when we are in a bad place requires courage, but is essential to maintaining our mental and emotional well-being.

Looking outside ourselves for support and connection (and, when necessary, treatment) represents only a partial answer for us stressed-out lawyers.  We also must pay attention to taking care of ourselves.  We should not count on our employers, partners, or clients (however humane and considerate) to protect us from any of our own tendencies, borne of perfectionism or ambition, to over-commit our time and energies to every apparent work demand, whether real or imagined.  Protecting our individual emotional health, as well as our personal integrity, requires that we establish boundaries and limitations on what we will allow ourselves and others to demand of us.  This suggestion may seem preposterous to an upwardly mobile big-firm associate expected to bill well over 2,000 hours while trying to impress multiple partners with her diligence and commitment.  But I would question whether any risks to career advancement we might run by maintaining and respecting some personal boundaries on what we and others can demand of us are far outweighed by the price we would pay by sacrificing our mental and emotional health.

Moreover, I believe that most of us, even those in jobs that require massive time and energy commitments, can take intentional and useful steps to enhance our own well-being.  I know lawyers who have found it helpful to create and observe daily or weekly “retreat” or “sabbath” times,” during which they engage in personally energizing or relaxing activities while removing themselves from attending to or thinking about work.  The activities can vary based on each individual: whether going for a walk; meditating or listening to music for 20 minutes; reading a chapter of a novel. – the possible list is endless, but whatever the activity (or inactivity), it should be one that (1) is undertaken as a regular practice; (2) offers a total respite from work demands and worries; and (3) leaves the individual feeling refreshed or relaxed upon its completion.

Although attending to care of ourselves can be one effective antidote to work-related stress and anxiety, it is equally important that we avoid becoming so focused on ourselves that we turn our attention completely inward.  Of course, one who is suffering from the worst symptoms of clinical depression or anxiety will find it difficult or impossible to focus on anything beyond her personal despair.  For most of us most of the time, however, the act of freely giving something of ourselves (even if only our undivided attention) to someone in need – whether it be a family member, a co-worker, a community member, or a group or cause in the world at large – can be the most affirming and self-healing of all activities.  One need not look very hard to observe all around us innumerable opportunities to use our own skills, our gifts, our passions, and our energies in ways that contribute to the well-being of others, while at the same time helping renew a sense of purpose and connection in our own lives.

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