When we think of the profession of law, the image often conjured is that of power suits, high stake negotiations and extended courtroom battles. In the midst of the thrill, the power and the glamour, however, is an unpleasant reality that continues to affect 1 out of every 4 people across the world—mental illness.
While anyone can experience a mental illness at any point in life, this topic has now begun receiving widespread attention in the legal fraternity. Almost three decades ago, Johns Hopkins University did a comparative study of 100 professions and found lawyers as a group to have the highest incidence of depression. A more recent study also found that over 20% of lawyers report a problematic drinking pattern which is more prominent in younger lawyers than the more experienced ones. Martin Seligman, a pioneer of Positive Psychology and studies in optimism, said that law is a profession where pessimists outperformed optimists. He went on to further quote that what makes people good lawyers is also what makes them unhappy.
While much has been said about the legal profession and mental health, it’s equally important to keep in mind that mental illness is not about personal weaknesses or character flaws. Instead, it’s about biological vulnerabilities interacting with one’s psychological attributes and situational conflicts, which come to manifest such diseases. Globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression and more than 260 million people are living with anxiety disorders. A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity.*
When we talk of 1 out of 4 people with a mental illness, we are essentially talking about an average of one person in every family. It is, therefore, time that individuals and organizations alike, make mental health a priority.
If you’re struggling with mental health issues or know someone who is, here are a few suggestions:
1. Refrain from blame– Mental illness has an external locus of control and it can happen to anyone at any time. Don’t blame yourself or anyone else when in distress, and at the same time, don’t brush difficult feelings aside.
2. Accept unique work-related challenges– Yes, the profession of law comes with a unique set of challenges. Accept the stresses that are a part of the practice and find solutions to help cope with it.
3. Worry only about what you can control– You can’t change the traffic on the road, the weather or your partner’s mood. Rather than fretting about things that you can’t change, focus only on what you can control.
4. Prepare for transition– Perfectionism is a quality highly valued in the legal community. Yet, striving for perfection from Day 1 is likely to lead to disaster and disappointment. For all those approaching a new role, give yourself time to adjust to the changing demands.
5. Maintain work-life balance– The topic of work-life balance is often met with feelings of despair and incredulity in the professional arena. It is a concept that exists only in the self-help section, but far away from the notions of reality. However, work-life balance isn’t necessarily about the number of hours spent at work and at home, but rather the extent of engagement experienced at the moment. When at work, commit to work and when at home, keep those files and handhelds away.
6. Make friends at work– We spend most of our waking time at work and it might not always be possible to touch base with friends from school and college on a regular basis. If you want to get through the day happy and content, it’s time you developed friend circle at work.
7. Invest in yourself– Irrespective of your age, it’s always a good idea to invest energy into a hobby— watching television and playing games on cell phones don’t count. Take short but frequent breaks from work, squeeze in some physical exercise every day and take time out to do the things you enjoy.
8. Stay away from substances– It’s ironic that more the people get stressed, the more they turn to anxiety-inducing substances. Yes, caffeine and nicotine, both central to the notion of relaxation and rejuvenation from work actually increase anxiety rather than decrease it. Similarly, for all those who consume alcohol to sleep better, alcohol actually ends up worsening quality of sleep rather than improving it.
9. Do a digital detox– Think of the last time you spent 4 waking hours without glimpsing at your cell phone, laptop or television. Every once in a while, carry out a digital detox where you unplug yourself and take a break from the world of screens.
10. Talk! And most importantly, talk! Express how you feel to your friends and family. Talking provides a new perspective, helps vent suppressed emotions and builds bonds that support us during our most difficult times. Seek help when you’re struggling; some consider it a weakness, but it can become your greatest strength.