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American lawyers have the blues too

When it comes to depression, it seems that American lawyers are just as vulnerable as Australian lawyers, and it is this fact that has inspired US-based lawyer Daniel Lukasik to produce a film…

When it comes to depression, it seems that American lawyers are just as vulnerable as Australian lawyers, and it is this fact that has inspired US-based lawyer Daniel Lukasik to produce a film about it.

According to recent research, American lawyers suffer from depression at a rate of 20 per cent, which is twice the rate of the general population in the US. Effectively, this means that 200,000 of America's one million lawyers are struggling with depression.

Australia has similar statistics, with research estimating that around one in three Australian lawyers will suffer depression at some point in their careers.

Lukasik, who is the founder of a website aimed at educating lawyers about depression, has recently completed work on the film, which is titled A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession.

Lukasik says it was his own struggle with depression, and a realisation that the issue was not really being discussed in legal circles, which led to the creation of the website and then the film.

"I have struggled, off and on, with depression for the past ten years. I went looking for a website where I could contribute an article about my experiences with depression while practising law. To my surprise - given the high rates of depression in the legal profession - I couldn't find one. So I built one," Lukasik told Lawyers Weekly.

"The idea was to create a place where law students, lawyers and judges could go, in the privacy of their homes or offices, and learn about depression. I wanted to offer hope and support. The film is just a continuation of that outreach effort."

The film is a 30 minute documentary featuring lawyers and a judge who have struggled with depression, as well as Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Fuelled a Presidency to Greatness; Dr Richard O'Connor, author of Undoing Depression; Andrew Sparkler, a lawyer and president of the Dave New Foundation, an organisation formed in the memory of a third-year law student who committed suicide; and several other experts and professionals with knowledge of mental illness and how it affects lawyers.

And, much like the film released earlier this year in Australia by [email protected], Lukasik says creating an avenue for open dialogue about mental illness amongst lawyers was the ultimate aim.

"The primary goal was to de-stigmatise depression in the legal profession. By doing so, I hoped that it would encourage those who have never gotten help, to get it. For those who are already getting help, or are 'veterans of depression,' it was to offer hope and ongoing encouragement," he said.

"Finally, it was to pull the veil back on it; to show the legal community just how prevalent depression is and some of the causes."

And while Lukasik says American lawyers are becoming more open to discussions about depression, there is still a long way to go.

"Lawyers are beginning to discuss it," he said. "[But] it is more often [discussed] in print than in person. My sense, though, is that this a first step in a greater conversation on the subject. The film is another step forward."

And while Lukasik says structural and cultural change within the legal profession in order to fight the illness is slow, he believes it is in the interests of law firms to wise-up as to how depression is affecting not only their people, but their business.

"Law firms [must] realise that mental health problems - particularly depression - hurt them in two ways," he said.

"First, lots of talented and bright lawyers are afflicted with depression and may leave firms because it. Firms have invested a lot in these people. They may bring in a lot of business to a law firm ... so, it's a financial loss. We also have the idea of 'presentism': lawyers are physically there and show up for work, but are unproductive because of their depression."

And from his own experience, Lukasik is hopeful that the film will allow lawyers who are suffering in silence to confront and deal with their illness - though he realises this is not necessarily an easy task.

"Many [lawyers] do not get help until after the wheels have fallen off. Sometimes, the pain has to be turned up very loud for people to finally admit they need help. This is largely because lawyers don't know what depression is, or [there is] the stigma which is difficult for lawyers to handle," he said.

"In the legal culture, lawyers are supposed to be strong, confident superheroes. They aren't supposed to have problems, they're supposed to fix other people's problems. So there is a high level of personal shame and fear attached to having depression for a lawyer."

You can visit Lukasik's website at www.lawyerswithdepression.com and access the film through the Erie County Bar Association's website at www.eriebar.org

Claire Chaffey

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