Sometimes change – in an individual or an organization – comes from inside.
That’s how it happened for Dan Lukasik ’88. He was an accomplished litigator and managing partner of his law firm when he was diagnosed with major depression twenty years ago. With medication, therapy, exercise, and diet, he eventually was able to bring his illness under control. But the stigma he encountered at the time stayed with him and motivated Dan to try and make things better for his fellow lawyers who struggle with this condition.
And as he began to write and speak about his experiences with depression and recovery, he came to realize how prevalent mental health problems are in the legal profession – and how a more healthy, holistic working environment can make lawyers more satisfied and more productive.
Lawyers, judges, and law students work with their brains, and depression impacts cognition – concentration, the ability to multitask, productivity. Mental health is a huge problem in the profession. We’re not debating that anymore in light of the ABA study. The next step is what to do about it.
“There is something clearly unique about the kinds of stress lawyers experience and its connection to mental health problems in the profession,” Lukasik says. “A 2016 ABA study of over 13,000 lawyers found that twenty-eight percent of lawyers reported that they had had a problem with depression within the past year. That number skyrocketed to over forty percent when researchers asked those surveyed if they had experienced a problem with depression at some point over the course of their legal career. These rates are much, much higher than the general population. They’re under chronic long-term stress, and it’s really like a perfect storm for depression to occur. Most lawyers are working all the time, so they don’t have time for the self-care they need to prevent or recover from depression. They may have student debt load or job insecurity concerns that only increase their stress and drives them to work harder. There are also too many lawyers competing for the same business that further fuels the fear that there is no time to manage their mental health.
“Lawyers, judges, and law students work with their brains, and depression impacts cognition – concentration, the ability to multitask, productivity. Mental health is a huge problem in the profession. We’re not debating that anymore in light of the ABA study. The next step is what to do about it.”
Having experienced the problem, Lukasik has become part of the solution – a crusader for better mental health in the legal profession. “Overcoming mental health challenges is very difficult if you try to do it on your own,” he says. “If I can be there and help give other people a leg up in their recovery, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Toward that end, he has written extensively about the problem, maintains a robust website of mental health resources (lawyerswithdepression.com), has spoken and conducted trainings at law firms, professional conferences, and law schools in the past, including Harvard and Yale, facilitates a depression support group for lawyers in his community, and is a go-to expert on the subject for the media. “This just organically became a bigger and bigger part of my life over the years,” he says and now it’s his full-time vocation.
In his current role as New York State judicial wellness coordinator, he educates judges and their staff members on stress management and resiliency. “Judges are all human beings, with the same kind of problems as other people,” Lukasik says. “All of us are part of the human story with all its ups and downs.”
Many lawyers, judges, and law students are in situations where the expected response to any problem is simply to tough it out. But he says real institutional change around mental health issues is the only way to make the profession healthier.
“It can’t be just an individual thing,” Lukasik says. “It can’t be simply self-management of stress, anxiety, and depression.” When he has spoken at law firms in the past, he has made the humanitarian argument – that fostering good mental health is simply the right thing to do – but a financial one as well, noting that lawyers’ mental health problems lower productivity and increase absenteeism and “presentism,” where a lawyer’s present at work, but not engaged and productive at his or her job.
“We have to address this problem in the context of the workplace culture,” he says. “It’s about the culture lawyers live and work in every day that impacts, for better or worse, their mental health. And law firm management has a key role to play in what culture they want and support at their firms.”