Members of the University of Alberta Faculty of Law heard several strategies for overcoming the depression and anxiety that affects lawyers at a high rate, during a recent talk by a prominent Ontario lawyer with hard-won experience in the matter.
First item on that list? Tell somebody.
“You can’t get help if you don’t tell someone,” said Orlando Da Silva, whose own battles with depression led to a suicide attempt in 2008.
Outwardly, Da Silva was a successful trial lawyer who had been a partner with one of Canada’s largest law firms. Inside, he was suffering from a chronic low-grade depression that flared every few years. Yet because he’d never spoken of it, no one noticed his mood dive after his marriage dissolved and he lost an election for public office. Only a last-minute speed dial call saved him from a lethal overdose.
Da Silva’s story underscores the alarming statistics he cited about his profession: lawyers are four times more likely than other people to suffer from depression, and the more successful they are, the more likely they are to have mental health struggles.
There are plenty of causes, said Da Silva. Lawyers work in a highly competitive, high-conflict field. They log long hours at the expense n of vacations, family time and hobbies. Many worry that opportunities or status will decline if they acknowledge mental health stress.
Worst of all, he said, those with depression often feel foolish because they know they are in privileged positions, with fulfilling, well-paid work and ask, “why can’t I just snap out of it?”
But mental illness has nothing to do with being rich or poor, said Da Silva. “It can happen to anyone, anytime. No one is immune.”
He suggested people prone to anxiety create a numerical scale to help identify exactly how far into a cycle they are so they can articulate it. For Da Silva, a “three out of 10” marks a point where he can’t lift himself out alone. His wife knows the scale, and asks the number when she observes signs of distress.
He also keeps a journal of happy events, and a list of his top accomplishments in his pocket, to counter feelings of worthlessness.
Da Silva encouraged his audience to use him as an example if they fear being open about their mental health will limit their career. When he became president of the Ontario Bar Association for 2014-2015, he launched a national campaign to counter the stigma of mental illness. He has since delivered some 200 lectures on mental health, and received numerous awards from his peers and his community for lifting the veil on a once-taboo subject. Today he is senior Crown counsel in the Serious Fraud Office Prosecution Division, a joint operation of the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Ontario Provincial Police.
Finally, said Da Silva, law students and lawyers must support each other. “Give compassion to your fellow students and to the people you lead. Never forget the inherent value of people. Let’s act like the noble profession we are supposed to be.”