Law firms can help lawyers deal with depression

By Donalee Moulton


July 18 2008


The issue of lawyers and depression is, quite frankly, depressing. The California Bar Journal tackled the subject in its May issue and noted that a Johns Hopkins University study discovered that lawyers suffer the highest rate of depression among workers in 104 occupations. Another study, this one from the University of Washington, found that 19 percent of lawyers suffered depression. The rate for the general population is only three to nine percent.

In Canada, where it is estimated that one in five Canadians suffers from a mental health illness, the economic impact of depression and other mental health problems is significant: more than $14 billion each year in absence-related costs alone.

But the news is not all disheartening. There is much that law firms can do to help lawyers deal with problems, often before they become debilitating.

The one thing a firm can’t do is nothing, said John Starzynski, volunteer executive director with the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program.

Despite the fact that most people know someone who has a mental illness, most people are not familiar with the signs and symptoms of mental illness, he noted. “There should be somebody in the firm who understands mental illness and can identify there is a problem.”

Education is needed, agrees Sue Philchuk, vice president of Banyan Work Health Solutions Inc., which has its head office in Toronto. It’s important, she noted, that key individuals in the firm understand the prevalence of depression and what to do if colleagues are having trouble coping. “If we recognize that there might be a problem, someone needs to reach out if an individual is struggling.”

One of the precipitating factors is often work/life balance, an issue for many lawyers. “[Lawyers] are highly stressed. They work long hours. They deal with not only the stress of getting work done but the stress of clients. There’s constant billing pressures. Where do you find time for yourself?” asks Starzynski, who has bipolar disorder.

When there is a conflict or problem attaining a work/life balance, this contributes to a person’s sense of well-being, noted Philchuk.

According to The Conference Board of Canada, individuals who reported a high degree of stress balancing their work and family life missed 7.2 days of work each year — double the absentee rate of those who reported very little stress.

It is not a question of one or the other. Indeed, work plays a major role in most people’s sense of well being. “Working is healthy, and working should make people thrive,” said Philchuk, “so setting a plan to reactivate people and have them return to work is often an essential component of their recovery from depression.”

Philchuk’s firm has a program, aptly called Reactivation, to help do just that — and it relies on many of the tried and true approaches to assisting people with depression and addresses issues head on. The program focuses on redeveloping a routine and structure to a person’s day; reclaiming their mental and physical stamina; and resuming a better quality of life. 

A reactivation consultant assists the individual to set realistic goals like improving eating habits, sleep, hygiene, physical activity and reconnecting with others. The employee’s progress is monitored by the consultant, who recommends strategies that a person can use to meet their individual goals. These strategies may include exercise programs, community volunteering, or plans on how to simply take better care of themselves as it relates to their specific needs.

Sleep, for example, is a critical issue for most depressed people.

“We know that people with depression, seasonal affective disorders, anxiety disorders, alcoholism, and many more conditions suffer terrible disruptions to their sleep patterns, and that in turn, a lack of good-quality sleep worsens their conditions,” said Roseanne Armitage, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and director of the The U-M Sleep & Chronophysiology Laboratory, one of the world’s first laboratories devoted solely to research on how sleep and biological rhythms influence depression and other mental illnesses.

In all, about 80 percent of adults and teens with depression report that they have severe sleep disturbances, and those with prolonged sleep problems also tend to have worse depression over time, and a higher risk of committing suicide.

Another area that is addressed as part of the reactivation program, which works one-on-one with affected individuals, is socialization. There is a tendency to withdraw when individuals are depressed. “We gradually expose them to social stimuli,” said Philchuk.

A commitment is required on the part of the individual, and on the part of the firm. “Many things can be done, from assisting with files, acknowledging time off for counselling or therapy sessions to covering for an extended absence of time,” said Starzynski.

“Hopefully,” he added, “this deals with the issue of stigma.”

According to Stephen Hinshaw in his book The Mark of Shame: Stigma of Mental Illness and an Agenda for Change, the public perception of serious mental illness is more negative today than it was a half century ago, despite significant advances in education, medication and psychological therapies. Moving forward requires moving beyond this outdated perception.

Indeed, it is central to getting an individual back to good health — and back to work. “To prevent progression of the disease, partners or trusted colleagues or friends must watch for the
classic signs of depression. These persons must be able to speak openly with (their) colleague about what they see is going on, support seeking medical advice, help follow through with counselling and offer continual moral support usually on a daily basis for a period of time,” said Starzynski.

Firms are doing that because they want to extend a helping hand. That helping hand also helps the firm, noted Philchuk. “The bottom line is it’s going to affect (your) bottom line.”

Employees suffering clinical depression are off the job an average of 40 days, and mental health claims (particularly depression) are the fastest growing category for days lost to disability in Canada.

Lawyers are looking to their firms to help avoid the worst-case scenario — and to make them feel a valued part of the team.


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Depressing numbers

Percent of lawyers who suffered from depression

Only 3-9% of the general population suffered from depression

7 days
Number of missed days of work each year for individuals who reported a high degree of stress balancing their work and family life

Percentage of adults and teens with depression who report that they have severe sleep disturbances

40 days
Number of days employees suffering clinical depression are off the job