So you suspect your partner might be depressed?
If they work in law, it is a distinct possibility. Depression in the US legal profession has become endemic. The statistics speak for themselves: depression among law students is 8-9% prior to matriculation, 27% after one semester, 34% after 2 semesters, and 40% after 3 years. And suicide is the third leading cause of death among practicing lawyers – six times the suicide rate for the general population.
The very nature of law can contribute to the surge of mental health issues that we’re seeing among its practitioners. It’s a demanding, hyper-competitive and extremely stressful field, with a high degree of emotional burnout.
Unlike, for example, medicine, the legal profession can be adversarial in the extreme. Everything depends on winning. Psychologically, it can be challenging for even the most balanced individual.
Plus, law can be a magnet for workaholics and high-achieving perfectionists. It’s common for such characters to isolate themselves, with the belief that they can “do it alone”. It can be hard for them to seek help until it is too late.
Lawyers can be at the mercy of their managing partners and their clients, frequently working on average around 60 hours a week. With such overwhelming demands on their time and mental reserves, it’s little wonder that recent studies claim that nearly 1 in 3 attorneys suffer from some form or other of substance abuse.
And of course, all this can place a huge strain on their relationships. The divorce rate among lawyers stands at 26.9% – even higher than that of physicians, at 24.6%. And for every divorce, countless unhappy marriages limp on, with one partner depressed and their spouse left feeling frustrated and helpless.
For those of you in a relationship with a lawyer whom you suspect might be depressed, here are some practical tips to help you and your partner get through.
Recognize the signs
Is your partner depressed, or just going through a “rough patch”? It can be difficult to tell the difference, even if you’ve been together for years. Classic signs of depression (among others) include:
- Seems numb and emotionless
- Expresses sadness or emptiness
- Is withdrawn from social activities, family and friends
- Is tired and drained all the time
- Exhibits changes in eating and sleeping habits – much less or much more of either
- Has angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Drinks more or abuses drugs
Start a conversation
People with depression tend to isolate themselves, and lawyers in particular may be more reticent than most in asking for help. Be proactive and initiate a conversation at a time when both of you are alone, with few distractions.
Frame your opening sentences in observations – “I’ve noticed that… I see that…” and don’t jump to conclusions immediately. Ask them how they feel, based on what you’ve observed. Remember – your goal at this stage is simply to get them to open up.
Listen more than you talk
You can express concern, but what if he/she refuses to acknowledge there’s a problem? Be patient. Wait for your partner to express a negative feeling; then communicate your willingness to listen. Say something along the lines of “I may not be able to know exactly what you’re feeling, but you’re not alone in this. I’m here, I care for you and I want to help”.
If your partner responds, then listen fully and thoughtfully to anything he or she says. Look them in the eye. Don’t try to frame a response in your mind before they’ve finished speaking. Pay attention. At this stage, a quiet, compassionate ear is more important than providing solutions. Your partner needs to understand that you are there for him or her.
Use open-ended questions
Asking questions with a simple yes/no answer won’t help your partner open up or feel closer to you. Ask any questions you have with a gentle “Why” or “How”, rather than “What”, “Who”, or “Do you…?”
Be logical in your approach
Once your partner has opened up, you can both start working out a plan, if he or she is willing to do so. Speaking in clear, logical terms of cause and effect should minimize the risk that your partner will react negatively.
For example – “You work 7 days a week. This gives you no time to relax and recharge. Overwork has been shown time and again to be linked with stress and depression. That’s probably why you’re struggling to cope, and it will keep getting worse over time. How about we try to sort out a plan for a better work/life balance?”
Always bear in mind that (usually) your partner may have worked hard for many years just to qualify as a lawyer. This is a powerful hold. Even if you feel that a complete career rethink is the only way forwards, be wary of suggesting it. Sometimes a less extreme solution may present itself – working in a different field, for example, or for a different firm.
Whatever the outcome, it is important that your partner come to their decision themselves. Do not try to push your views, even if you’re convinced privately that you’re right.
Be cognizant of their schedule
Keeping track of his or her big cases, client meetings etc. will help you assess your partner’s emotional barometer when he or she is at home, and help you identify potential times of maximum stress.
Even if they don’t want to talk about it, expressing your support at the right time could help them open up at a later date.
Help set new priorities – both personal and professional
Make time to sit down with your partner and work through their priorities, both in and out of work. It’s vital that your partner feels that he or she is regaining some measure of control over his life, both personal and professional. The aim is to help them work out what’s truly important, and how to let go of the less important.
Ask the right questions – what are their goals, short term and long term? Might there be new ways to achieve these?
Encourage your partner to look after him/herself
Encourage your partner to make exercise, good eating and personal hobbies a priority. There are myriad ways to manage stress, and your partner will likely have (or have once had) a favorite hobby, sport or pastime that helps them relax.
Look after yourself
It’s easy for a person coping with a depressed partner to fall into the trap of putting herself last. Remember, if you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else either.
Eating well, getting exercise and putting your own needs first is essential for ensuring your partner gets the support he or she needs to recover.
If it all gets too much, do not be afraid to let your partner know you are taking a break yourself for a period of time, even if only to regain some perspective.
Help your partner acknowledge his or her strengths and weaknesses
Make a list with your partner of his or her strengths and weaknesses and discuss how they might be able to maximize those strengths at work, whilst accepting and finding ways to potentially resolve the weaknesses.
Although this may seem an emotionally draining exercise, the rewards reaped can be significant. Obtaining this level of self-knowledge may help them build some resilience to the stress and emotional fallout of the legal profession, and perhaps develop greater equilibrium in the long run.
And finally – get professional help
When a person is suffering from depression, getting professional help is paramount. Efforts to help the depressed person at home are important, but should be employed alongside expert professional treatment, rather than as a substitute. Depression is a serious condition, no matter what the trigger, and the sooner it is tackled, the better.
If your partner is resistant to the idea, it might be helpful remind him or her that a true professional always knows when to ask for help. And if he or she is struggling with substance abuse, then of course it’s crucial to seek help as soon as possible.
Getting a depressed person to seek help can be hard, but ensuring that they continue with it can be even harder. Offer to go with them to therapy sessions, or to doctor appointments.
When all’s said and done, sometimes it can be impossible to find the right words, even for your partner or spouse. Along with encouraging them to they seek professional help, simply being there for them and letting them know – clearly and constantly – that you love them can be an invaluable support for someone in the grip of depression.
PARC’s skilled, compassionate therapists have over 30 years’ experience helping people in high stress professions with their personal relationships. Call now for an expert, private consultation.