Take the Screen! Lawyers Suffer From Depression About 3.6 Times More Than Non-lawyers

By District of Columbia Bar

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By Katherine M. Bender of the Dave Nee Foundation

I recently saw a television commercial promoting the early detection of breast cancer. The woman in the commercial spoke about how her willingness to be screened for breast cancer resulted in the early detection of the disease and ultimately resulted in her treatment and recovery.

Our society promotes all kinds of screening for physical health. In addition to routine screenings for breast, skin and prostate cancers, our weight, temperature and blood pressure levels are checked when we see our doctor for a checkup or a specifice complaint; and, we do not think twice about it.  We are even willing to fast for 8 to 12 hours in advance of getting blood drawn. It seems careless not to get a screening!

Let’s assume you do not think twice about getting a skin cancer screening. But, what if your physician offered to screen you for depression?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.7% of all U.S. adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2013. In 2006, three times as many people incurred expenses for mental health conditions than for cancer conditions.

Although the National Institute of Mental Health does not provide what percentage of the 36.2 million people who had expenses for mental health conditions were lawyers, a commonly cited study indicates that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers[1].

As a researcher and advocate promoting well being among law students and attorneys, I sometimes wonder what might change if research demonstrated that lawyers were 3.6 times more likely than non-lawyers to suffer from heart disease. I imagine all sorts of "heart-healthy" programs being offered–by law schools to large law firms–and individuals readily participating in the programs.

So, what are the barriers to getting a screening for depression? Why do we see over and over again law students and attorneys trying to “white-knuckle” through another day? Our research has found that one reason law students are reluctant to seek help for mental health or substance use issues is that the law students believe they can handle it on their own.

In fact, 36% of law students reported a reason to not get help is that they can handle a mental health problem on their own[2]. Would these same students be setting their own broken bones?

There is something about revealing or accepting that one is struggling with a mental health condition that gets to the very core of how a successful law student or lawyer acts.

The idea of accepting one’s vulnerability is a concept so difficult to square with the lawyer’s self-image as an action-oriented, successful professional. Despite this, we know that the lack of willingness to show vulnerability perpetuates stereotypes about mental illness and sustains a culture where vulnerability is denied and mental health conditions are left untreated.

We at the Dave Nee Foundation are trying to change that. We are grateful to the voices that are helping to change that: Brian Clarke, James Jones,[3] Marjorie Silver,[4] Dan Lukasik, and Hilary Chaney. These are successful lawyers who are “out” about their personal experiences with mental health conditions. Brian, Jim, Marjorie, Dan, Hilary and others provide us empirical evidence that expressing vulnerability does not negate a successful career in the legal field, and more importantly, they inspire us all to take the first step in getting help: get screened!

 Get yourself screened. It does not take a lot of time. It can be done from a computer, tablet, or a smart phone. No fasting required! No appointment needed! Take the screen. It is anonymous and confidential. 

If the results indicate that you might be experiencing clinical depression, you are not alone. Resources are available. Friends, families, employers, medical doctors, and clinicians are available to help. Are you willing to take the first step and get screened?

[1] See “Occupations and the Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder,” 32 Journal of Occupational Medicine 1079, 1990

[2]Organ, J.M, Jaffe,  D., Survey  of  Law  Student  Well  Being  Spring  2014,  Results on file with the Dave Nee Foundation

[3] Walking the Tightrope of Bipolar Disorder: The Secret Life of a Law Professor, 57 J. Legal Educ. 349 (2008)

[4] See Marjorie A. Silver 2005 Commitment and responsibility: Modeling and teaching professionalism pervasively, 14 Widener Law Journal 329-363;2005)

The D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) has a free and confidential monthly mental health support group. It is a safe place for D.C. Bar members to exchange ideas about coping with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

If you would like to register or to obtain more information about the group and/or other services through LAP, please contact us 202-347-3131 or