Shedding the Stigma & Sharing the Struggle: Mental Health Challenges Facing the Legal Community

By: Stacy Liere

I suffer with depression. It’s the reason I withdrew from school last fall. Mental illness is something nobody chooses. It’s a chemical imbalance. It’s often genetic. In short, it’s something that is beyond your control. Learning how to cope with depression and anxiety is an important step, but actually understanding the disease lays a foundation on which to build. I’ve chosen to share my struggle in hopes that explaining the complexities of mental illness will breed compassion and validation, which can ease the burden for those suffering.

My depression is not my fault, but it is a reality that I have to deal with every day. I have learned, however, that I am not alone in my struggle. Many law students and lawyers cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental illness often prevents those suffering from seeking help, and conversely prevents others who don’t suffer from understanding what coping with a mental illness is like. This is my attempt to break that cycle.

Andrew Solomon, writer and Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, explains that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to depression. “We know depression in metaphors. Books, movies, paintings, songs. But unless you have a mental illness, you cannot fully grasp the hold it has over you. Depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses are invisible diseases. Logically, people can’t understand something they can’t see. It’s hard for non-depressives to understand that it’s more than just having a bad day.”[1]

Further, Bethanne Patrick, a writer for Elle Magazine, describes how depression affects your brain and distorts your thinking: “When you can’t see the blackboard in your classroom, you know that your eyes need help; you don’t think that the board itself is the problem. When you can’t see the good in your life, you think that your life is all wrong. Depression tells you that there is no help to be had, no quarter for refuge, no hand to hold. Depression tells you that resistance is futile..”[2]

Statistics show that struggles with depression and anxiety run rampant among law school students and lawyers. According to the Dave Nee Foundation, 96 percent of law school students suffer from stress, as compared to 70 percent of medical students and 43 percent of other graduate students. Entering law school, students have a psychological profile paralleled to that of the general public. After law school, 20-40 percent of students report to suffer from a psychological ailment of some variety.

Additionally, lawyers are commonly the most depressed occupational group in the country, being 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers. Lawyers rank 5th in incidents of suicide by occupation.[3] The reality of those statistics are jarring and particularly discouraging for anyone already struggling with the disease. However, acknowledging that this issue is prevalent in our profession and creating an open dialogue can lead to valuable support.

The shame of being stigmatized by our peers or society creates an obstruction, preventing those struggling from seeking help. This stigma is destructive by furthering isolation and misunderstanding. No one wants to be judged for admitting that they have a mental illness. No one wants to be avoided or labeled as unstable. No one wants his or her opportunities to practice as an attorney to be thwarted because of a diagnosis. Often, people suffering from depression or mental illness already have shameful thoughts about their diagnosis, and the stigma surrounding mental illness only serves to validate that negativity. Rather than isolate our peers, let’s try to understand and sympathize with what they are dealing with and offer ways to help.

What can be done? How can we prevent these staggering statistics? The answer is simple: awareness. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety in yourself and those close to you. If someone is not behaving like himself or herself, have an honest discussion with that person and offer support and encouragement. Oftentimes, the key to helping a friend is just showing up. Simply standing by someone during his or her darkest hour can make all the difference.

Acceptance also plays a crucial role. Accepting your condition and seeking treatment early is essential to establishing healthy coping mechanisms. Ignoring symptoms and sweeping things under the rug can lead to detrimental results down the road. Having the courage to admit that you are struggling and taking the necessary steps to become a healthy person is not shameful in any sense. It’s a brave move that may inspire others who are dealing with the same issues to seek help as well. Ultimately, your well-being should take precedence over the fear of becoming part of the stigma.

Treating depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness is not a one-dimensional solution. Symptoms can be managed with medication, talk therapy, or a combination of the two. However, there are alternative ways to help manage stress outside of the doctor’s office. Exercise, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness aid in releasing brain chemicals called endorphins, which work to counter anxious or sullen behavior.

The stress of law school is taxing on all of us at some point in our three years at PMH. Relieving that stress sometimes requires stepping out of it. Take a break from the library and do something completely unrelated to schoolwork. Go see a movie, grab dinner with a friend, treat yourself to a Sunday Funday once in awhile. Disengaging from the pressure allows you to gain perspective and recharge. Spinning your wheels to the point of complete exhaustion is not only counterproductive; it can magnify anxiety, trigger depression, and make the situation worse.

The goal of sharing my battle with depression is not a plea for sympathy, but a push for awareness. Understanding the context behind the diagnosis leads to compassion and acceptance. If you see a friend or acquaintance coping poorly, don’t turn a blind eye or reject them. Listen. Ask them what’s on their plate and suggest ways to help. There’s a quote that speaks to the consequences and triumphs of this disease, “Sometimes it takes an overwhelming breakdown to have an undeniable breakthrough.” It’s true. Depression is a hell of a fight and it’s not for the faint of heart. Overcoming is not easy, but there are always ways to rebuild. It is possible to lead a fulfilling life whilst having depression or anxiety, and every single good day is worth the fight.



[1] Andrew Solomon. “Depression. The Secret We Share.” TED. October 2013. Web. 1 September 2016.

[2] Bethanne Patrick. Double Depression – “I Lived With Depression Almost Every Day of my Life.” Elle. 28 September 2016. Web. 29 September 2016.

[3] “Lawyers and Depression.” The Dave Nee Foundation. Web. 2 October 2016.