Depressed professionals turn to drugs and alcohol

by 01 May 2007

Lawyers are more likely to suffer depression and use drugs and alcohol to manage depressive symptoms than their professional peers, according to a recent study.

The research, carried out by Beaton Consulting in conjunction with beyondblue, involved 7,500 professionals including accountants, engineers and architects, and asked a series of questions from a standardised mental health survey.

Nicole Highet, deputy CEO of beyondblue said the results were a wake-up call for law firms. “The data here shows that the rates are significant. At least one in 10 people right now in professional firms are going to have clinical depression and the rates were higher in lawyers – around 15 percent,” she said.

“So that’s 15 percent who had depression just at the point when they were completing the survey. Those results would be even higher higher if the questions were asked over a twelve month period or if we asked people if they’d ever experienced it.”

Respondents to the survey were also asked whether they used drugs and alcohol to manage sadness and depression and the higher incidence amongst lawyers – 5 per cent knowingly self-medicated using and drugs and alcohol – correlates with the higher incidence of depression.

South Pacific Private, a Sydney based rehabilitation centre that assists people with depression and alcohol and drug addiction, issued a statement following the release of the survey saying lawyers developed coping mechanisms for dealing with pressure but often didn’t recognise their own needs and were reluctant to seek help.

“With greater awareness of the problems, we hope it will remove the stigma of depression among the legal fraternity, and allow individuals to recognise the symptoms and seek help sooner, rather than later,” said South Pacific Private spokesperson, psychotherapist Jackie Furey.

While lawyers represented the greatest proportion of professionals using drugs, there was also significant use among patent attorneys, actuaries and insurance underwriters. The lowest incidence of use was among professionals working in engineering firms.

Drug and alcohol use is just one of the symptoms of depression and people need to look out for other tell-tale signs as well said Highet.

“People use drugs and alcohol for a whole range of reasons so it’s also important to about looking at other behaviours. For example a change over two weeks or more such as a period of sadness or loss of interest in things you might have got pleasure out of previously. And a range of symptoms like sleeping problems, lost productivity, motivation, negative thinking or feelings, feeling helpless or worthless,” Highet said.

“If someone experiences feeling down or four or more of those symptoms it’s likely they are experiencing some kind of depression and the more symptoms they have the more severe the depression.”

Previous studies have shown that an employee with untreated depression is estimated to cost their organisation an average of $9,660 per annum due to lost productivity and absenteeism, so it makes good financial sense for law firms to address the issue.

Meanwhile, further research released last week warned that illicit drug use costs the economy more than $6 billion annually. The study, developed by a team of economists for the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, also found that business bears more than half that cost. The report said the costs rack up through lost productivity, crime, road accidents and absenteeism.

According to Chris Caton, chief economist at BT Financial Group, the costs represent around 2 per cent of Australian company profits and business must get involved in combating the problem.

He told the ABC that the study underscores the fact that drug policy is currently an “economics free zone”. “It’s for business to realise that this is a business issue, it is having economic effects. Business- needs also to be involved in minimising the cost of illicit drug use,” he said.


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