Depression: Coming back from the black

by 22 Sep 2009

The incidence of depression in lawyers is almost double that of the general population, writes Graeme Cowan

Feeling like you are treading water in a whirlpool? Are you struggling with continued interruptions that leave your mind always cloudy? Finding it difficult to switch off from work and sleep properly? Wound up like a spring?

Rest assured, you are not alone.

In 2007 Medibank Private commissioned a study by Econtech which found that the cost to the Australian economy of absenteeism was $7 billion and presenteeism amounted to a staggering $26 billion. The report concluded that by far the biggest contributor to this productivity loss was depression and anxiety disorders.

Since the GFC, the strain has been building rapidly, with the number of people seeking Medicare rebates for psychological services growing by a staggering 54 per cent from March 2008 to March 2009.

What makes this even more concerning is that in research undertaken for my recent book, Back From The Brink, only 9 per cent of people living with depression and anxiety disorders in Australia felt comfortable discussing it with their work colleagues.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that managers are reluctant to initiate a discussion with someone who is struggling with depression and anxiety because they fear they "may open a can of worms". This avoidance strategy couldn't be more wrong because clinicians unanimously agree that the earlier an episode is addressed the better the outcome for the employee and the organisation.

The high rate of depression and substance abuse by lawyers is well documented. In the recent survey conducted for the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, 35 per cent of law students recorded a High to Very High Kessler-10 Distress rate (see box on right), solicitors scored 31 per cent, barristers 17 per cent, and the general population 13 per cent.

It is beyond the scope of this article to propose long-term solutions to this complex problem, but I would like to contribute some short-and-medium-term strategies that can significantly improve peoples' mood and performance in the workplace. Before discussing these recommendations, however, I need to discuss levels of distress.

I find people can relate to the concept of a moodometer.

Most people's response to adversity is to slide down the moodometer. This is understandable, but our fulfilment and success in life is ultimately determined by how quickly we can bounce back from these challenges. The focus of my recommendations is for individuals in the red and amber zones (63 per cent of solicitors versus 37 per cent for general population).

I have been at the lowest levels of the red zone and it is a place of great despair. What makes it particularly dangerous is that when I was there I had given up hope of getting better and couldn't remember being mentally healthy. My mind was cloudy and I had difficulty making decisions as quickly as I once did.

I mention this for those that may be feeling this way, because after some changes in my lifestyle, I now live my life almost entirely in the green zone. I firmly believe that you can not only bounce back to where you were before, but if you are open to the lessons presented in these challenges, you may come out the other side thriving. You have no choice but to act now - no one deserves to dread each day.

For those in the amber zone, you may be tempted to keep hanging in there hoping that things will turn around by themselves - they probably won't. You can't keep doing the same thing and be hopeful of getting a different result. You are in survival mode and probably can't see options available that may help improve your life.

No matter what you know intellectually, when you are going through hard times there is a strong tendency to believe that you are the only one going through it. I know I felt this way. Since I have told my story of battling depression in the work place so publicly, I have found that every person I meet has someone close to them with a similar experience. Believe me - you are not alone.

Short-term action

If you have been feeling in the red or amber zone every day for two weeks, the first thing you should do is see your GP, a psychologist, or counsellor from your EAP provider (if you have one). If you are reluctant to do that, you should at least consider an anonymous self test for depression at www.BlackDogInstitue.org.au

If the test suggests you need to speak to a mental health professional then organise an appointment immediately.

The second thing you should commit to doing is at least 30 minutes exercise each day. This doesn't have to be a marathon - a 30-minute brisk walk in a park with nature at lunchtime is enough. When you walk, try to be in the moment and observe the plants, birds, animals and insects along the way. If you prefer swimming, cycling, aerobics, or dancing, do that. Research by the Black Dog Institute has shown exercise to be the most effective strategy (with no negative side effects) for improving depressive symptoms.

Your third strategy should be to share your situation with someone you trust. This could be your spouse or partner, family member, or a friend. If your low mood is impacting on your productivity at work, I would also strongly recommend talking to your manager.

He or she has mostly likely already noticed the changes and it is better that they are aware of the real issue and don't dismiss it as just a performance problem. Besides, you will need their support and approval if you are required to take time off to see doctors and to exercise.

It is important in the next four weeks that you follow your doctor's advice, exercise 30 minutes per day six days a week, and plan to meet with loved ones at least two or three times a week. I found it helpful to sit down on a Sunday and plan when I was going to schedule these activities in my diary for the week ahead. If you don't plan for it in advance - it won't happen. You need to do these things even if you don't FEEL like it. The opposite of resilience is rigidity.

See next week's edition of HR Leader for the second part of this piece in which Cowan suggests four essential strategies for bouncing back from adversity and outlines how managers, team mates and organisations can assist a colleague suffering from depression.

Graeme Cowan was the joint managing director of a professional services firm before suffering a five-year episode of depression. He frequently shares his story on how he bounced back and thrived, and is author of the book series Back From The Brink Graeme Cowan blogs at www.overcomingdepressionblog.com and can be contacted at Graeme@IamBackFromTheBrink.com

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