One in four of us experience a mental illness. We are three times more likely to suffer from depression, and have one of the highest suicide rates of all professions. If we are female, we are twice as likely to get depressed as our male counterparts. We are lawyers, and we take the required MCLE for competency. We learn that mental illness and substance abuse run rampant among us; but, we never talk about the real problem—the fact that shame and stigma often deter us from seeking treatment.
We hide the fact that we are struggling, which only prolongs our struggle. I was one of these attorneys, suffering through anxiety and depression in silence, too ashamed to seek help or even admit to myself that I was struggling. After I recovered, I saw that nothing stood in the way of my recovery but shame and fear. I share my experience here, and at the Life & Law Committee’s February 5, 2019, MCLE on competency, in an effort to bring this common struggle into the light.
I had always been an anxious person. My anxiety ratcheted up in law school, and it -skyrocketed after my son was born when I was a fifth-year attorney. Trying to balance new motherhood as a litigator felt impossible, and the self-imposed pressure to be perfect in multiple arenas was crushing. I was in a car crash shortly after returning to work from maternity leave, and my anxiety worsened. I was afraid to drive, and I couldn’t work on an auto case without having a panic attack. I did all of the things you’re supposed to do to feel better—I went to therapy, exercised every day, learned to meditate, practiced yoga, ate well, and even (gasp!) took a month off of work. But nothing helped, and I eventually spiraled down into depression.
I had never been depressed before, and it is truly a tortured despair that I would not wish on my worst enemy. I felt like checking myself into a psychiatric hospital would have been a welcomed relief, and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t “work” my way out of it. Despite my efforts for more than a year, I just wasn’t getting better, so I made an appointment with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with depression and anxiety disorder. I was terrified to take medication for a mental illness, but I also had to figure out a way to get better. The doctor prescribed antidepressant, and I—terrified of what it meant, but desperate for improvement—took it. And then, amazingly, I got better, and I got better pretty fast.
Looking back, I see that nothing stood in the way of my recovery but shame, and that shame robbed me of a year of my life. Shame told me that it was my fault I couldn’t “work” my way out of being depressed and get better with meditation/yoga/therapy/ exercise or whatever else you’re “supposed” to be able to do to feel better. Once I started sharing what I’d been through, I found that a LOT of other attorneys (and people in general, for that matter) struggle with all kinds of mental illnesses, and lots of other attorneys take medication to manage it.
Like any monster in the darkness, it isn’t scary once you turn on the light. I realized that the stigma and shame of mental illness would evaporate if everyone just stopped hiding their own struggles. And really, why do we hide it in the first place? We don’t wait a year to go to the doctor if we have a broken leg because we fear what others will think, hoping that it magically will heal if we just exercise/meditate/go to therapy/do yoga. We go to the doctor, get a cast put on, limp around for a few weeks, and then we are fine. But, if we walk around on a broken leg for a year because we fear that getting treatment for it threatens our careers, or is shameful—like we do with mental illness—that broken leg is going to start hurting pretty bad, and it will take a lot longer to heal. I think it’s time we start treating mental illness like we treat a broken leg.
Julie Lopez is co-chair of Lawyers Club’s Life & Law Committee, and partner at Tatro & Lopez, LLP, a litigation firm representing nonprofit organizations and business, and individuals who've been injured by elder abuse, medical malpractice, and auto collisions.