Here we are, seventeen months (for most of us) into the pandemic and one of the best metaphors I read for this a few months ago was that we may all be in the same sea, but we’re all in different boats. Some people are living in countries where lockdowns are strict and occur for very few cases, but when they lift there are no masks and no restrictions. Some people have never really seen a lockdown lift at all, and life is very much limited to their homes and the people in it. Some people are back to wearing masks, while others never stopped wearing them.
What I can tell you is that everyone I have talked to recently is struggling in one way or another. A woman recently tweeted “You just went through 1.5 years of a profound ongoing threat to your health/wellbeing/life, social isolation, aggressive disinformation, political turmoil, and financial uncertainty. OF COURSE you are not functioning at your peak.”
[As before, I’m adding a **Trigger Warning** to this post, because we’ll be discussing mental health, depression, and anxiety. I’m also adding again that I’m not a doctor, and as always, refer you to speak directly with a doctor or licensed therapist.]
A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about it being okay to break down, which I shared again last week when Jaimie Field wrote about Simone Biles’ decision to take a step back from the Olympics. Thinking about that post this week has me realizing that it continues to be relevant and important – and not just because of the pandemic, but for many reasons.
We don’t need a pandemic to make it okay for us to take care of our mental health; it’s just that the pandemic has put into stark relief for many of us how important it is to take care of our mental health and that it is okay to do so.
The legal industry is known for high stress. That’s not a surprise to any of you. I’m sure many of you saw what Simone Biles did last week and thought, “that’s great for her, but I could never do what she did. I’d lose clients, face, time, etc.”
And of course, in Simone’s case, she risked her physical health as well, because if she competed in the state she was in, she could injure herself and possibly become paralyzed or worse. But isn’t it enough that she takes care of her mental health without having to qualify that she could also risk her physical health?
Shouldn’t it be enough for each of us too?
So let’s talk about this again. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, asking for and getting help for your mental health is one of the bravest things you can do. Taking that first step is such a relief. It’s as if you’ve taken a heavy, weighted blanket off your body and suddenly you can breathe again. It doesn’t mean that the journey to wellness is an easy one, but the jig is up and you no longer have to walk that journey by yourself. I promise you it will help you to feel better – maybe not immediately, but speaking to someone with the skills to help you cope and an objective view of your life and situation is literally a lifesaver.
[Again, not a doctor] One of the things we talked about in that last post was different types of depression, and among them is situational and major depressive disorder. For some of you reading this and struggling, you may be experiencing symptoms of depression for the first time, and not recognizing them as depression, because it is situational. Situational depression can sometimes happen around the loss of a loved one or a job. Right now, we’re experiencing all kinds of grief (many people have lost loved ones, but you may also be experiencing the grief of job loss, loss of experiences or life as you knew it; I’m experiencing the loss of my beloved dog, Barney). It’s entirely reasonable that some of these symptoms may come up, and give us greater compassion and understanding for those who suffer from major depressive disorder (like me!). In case you’re not sure what the symptoms of depression are, for yourself, or for those around you, the Mayo Clinic has a great list:
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness, or hopelessness
- Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies, or sports
- Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
- Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Anxiety, agitation, or restlessness
- Slowed thinking, speaking, or body movements
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or suicide
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
Mayo Clinic notes that these symptoms can appear differently in children and in older adults, so if you’re concerned about someone in one of those age categories, do some deeper dives to see what those symptoms may be.
I do want to share a word of caution with friends and family of loved ones with depression – I see many, many posts from people sharing offers of help to people who are suffering. I know that these are genuine and well-meaning. But as a depression and anxiety-warrior myself, and being a friend to several depression and anxiety warriors, I know that it is an intense and often life-threatening disease. It is also best left to the professionals. When you offer to be there for someone, and act as a lifeline, but you don’t pick up the phone or answer a text message or other outreach, you might be the last port of call for that person. Again, that’s why I can never emphasize enough the importance of involving medical professionals in getting someone help and care. So, how do you do that?
As the person struggling – I know firsthand how hard it is to pick up the phone and ask for help. You feel guilty for bothering everyone, you feel unworthy of the effort, you make excuses about not wanting to spend the time, you don’t want to admit what’s going on because then you’d have to fix it, sometimes suffering is actually comforting, you might be forced to get out of your comfort zone (and a million other reasons). But I promise you, it’s really a relief once you do it. Yes, it’s true that sometimes it takes time to find the right therapist. Or the right dosage of medication if you need it. But once you do, your whole life opens up to you. It’s like a weight has actually been lifted. As my doctor told me when I broke down in her office two years ago, “You deserve to be treated. If you had high blood pressure, we’d treat you for that.”
I will also add another note to this because it’s something else I recently realized – you don’t always know that you need help. You may be functionally depressed, which I think is fairly common in the legal profession because we’re high achievers. One of my favorite accounts to follow on Instagram is The Depression Project, and they will often share slides with prompts that encourage you to dig deeper into symptoms you may have. You may think that you’re functioning quite well – getting up, going to work, getting things done. But when you examine the way you’re living your life at the moment, is it at your fullest capacity? Or have you been struggling to get out of bed? Have you been having issues with your appetite? Have you been isolating (and not in the quarantine-friendly way)? Are you putting off things that you normally enjoy doing? Sometimes you may realize that you thought you were coping fairly well, but it turns out that you’re a high-functioning depressed person – and that’s okay, but wouldn’t it be great if you felt better?
When looking for a therapist, friends and others have recommended Psychology Today as a great place to find therapists in your area. This is US-based, and will help you to find someone licensed near you. You can also call your doctor for references – I have a great relationship with my GP, so she was able to give me a list, and also tell me who on that list was most likely to be a good fit for me. She was right. Talking to trusted family and friends is also a way to find a therapist or counselor that someone you know has had success with. Another tip I’ll share is that I’ve had many friends and friends of loved ones with depression wait months to speak to a psychiatrist about medication (therapists and psychologists are not licensed to prescribe). If you are seeing a therapist and need medication, your doctor (and if you’re a woman, your gynecologist) can prescribe antidepressants if deemed necessary. So when you’re in a medical crisis, know that your doctor can be a primary resource for you as well.
If you’re the friend or family member of someone who is struggling, don’t be afraid to ask the person how they’re doing, and to be specific. Ask “are you depressed?” Say “I’ve noticed you have these symptoms and I’m worried about you.” “Can we talk about how to get you some help?” Talk openly about suicide and whether they have a plan – that will let you know if the threat is immediate and you need to act quickly to get them help right away. These conversations are terrifying and hard – I have had them with people, and I won’t pretend they aren’t awful. I recommend talking to a professional yourself to find out how to have them, and also involving other family and friends to get support – not to make the friend or family member feel like they’re being cornered, but to help them understand how loved they are, and how worried you are. You as the friend also need support in this situation, because it IS an overwhelming one. So even if you are designated as the person to do the talking, ensure that you’re getting support throughout as well.
There are other ways to cope with depression (and anxiety, if you’re in the lucky group that gets to battle both!) in addition to therapy and/or medication. Here are some resources from HelpGuide.com and my own list for how to do this:
Reaching out and staying connected: This one is *essential* for me. I’m an introvert, and about eight years ago, I had a bout of agoraphobia as well thanks to being semi-stalked by a neighbor. So being on lockdown during a pandemic can be a bit risky. I have to be exceptionally intentional about how I engage with people. I’ve also been rigorously honest with friends and family about how I’m feeling, whether that’s good or bad, so that I can make sure to stay ahead of any issues that are cropping up.
Getting outside: Daily movement is essential. I’m training for a marathon, so I’m in a different place right now than some people, but you don’t have to go for a long run to get in some fresh air. Just a short, casual walk can make a HUGE difference. The important thing is to get outside. I know this can be tough in certain places right now with the air quality (as an asthma sufferer, it’s been problematic for me too), but being intentional about movement and fresh air is huge.
Meditation: Although I am firmly in the camp of it being unnecessary to pick up a new skill or hobby during quarantine, I did commit to daily meditation early in quarantine, and pretty much stuck with it despite a few fits and starts. I had promised myself I would commit to this in 2020, and it’s helped me tremendously. I’m using the Calm app, and both the guided meditations and the sleep stories have been a tremendous lifesaver for me. I truly didn’t think I’d survive ten-minute meditations when I used to get antsy over five minutes, but I’ve done over 205 hours of meditating in the last 17 months. My running coach has made it part of my training.
Proper nutrition: If we’re honest, we’re all probably doing this one to lesser or greater degrees of success, right? And I’m certainly not the food police by any means. But I can tell you for myself, when I’m eating foods that nourish me, and regularly (as in, I don’t wait to eat lunch until 3pm), I feel better and my moods are more even. Being able to do this is definitely a privilege, and one I don’t take for granted. It’s certainly on my gratitude list (and having a gratitude list is another practice for me that is hugely helpful).
Therapy & Medication, as needed: we’ve covered these!
Reaching out to support others (getting out of your own head): This one is HUGE for me. One of my favorite sayings is “I may not be much, but I’m all I ever think about.” And when I think too much about myself, that’s where I’m at. So one way to not spend too much time with *me* is to spend more time thinking about others. There are TONS of things you can do to help out, even if you need to social distance.
Pets!: I am endlessly grateful that for the last year of my big guy’s life, I was home each and every day with him. It’s a gift I did not see coming. And I still have my other pup to snuggle. More animals were rescued from shelters during the pandemic than ever before, and that certainly must be helping everyone (I hope!).
Do things that make you feel good (bath, watching funny shows, reading a good book): Whenever I’m talking to a friend with depression, I suggest getting back to the “kid” basics – what were the things that you enjoyed doing as a kid that would make you happy now? Make a grilled cheese or a PB&J. Read a book that you love (not one that you feel like you’re “supposed” to read). Watch a funny show. Jump rope. Bake cookies. This isn’t about learning a new skill, but it’s about getting back to the 10-year-old you that felt some joy.
Supporting your health (regular exercise, eight hours of sleep, etc): Same thing here – how would you care for a young child? Care for yourself that way. Give yourself a strict bedtime and adhere to it (I say “you” because I’m terrible about this. I’m working on it.). Commit to exercise – I’m not suggesting reinventing yourself, just moving in a way that brings you some joy – even if that’s a dance party in the kitchen for ten minutes (really, I mean it). Eat meals at mealtime, even if you don’t want to, with real food. Pretend you’re a kindergartener who needs some TLC – what would you say to him/her/them? Do those things. Say those things.
Taking care of our mental health is HARD. But it’s so, so important. And what I’ve learned over time is that if we don’t do it, our bodies will force us to. When I don’t deal with my anxiety effectively, I’ll suddenly get a rash or esophageal spasms (those are great). Last year, my mom had a seizure because of untreated anxiety – that’s a medical diagnosis. Our work is important and it does have value, but so do our lives. And as I’m constantly reminding my friends (and to a lesser successful degree, myself), we cannot be successful at our jobs if we aren’t the best versions of ourselves.
So it’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to step back and say no because you need to. We ALL need to do more of that. I believe that we’ll all be better professionals and better people for it.
Very, very importantly, I want to share: If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
Please know, if you are suffering from depression, know that you are not alone. Even if this is new to you, if it’s situational, if it’s postpartum, if it’s related to another medical cause, if it’s major depression – YOU ARE NOT ALONE. And know that there is help out there. You deserve to be treated. You deserve to get help.