Home » Commentary » Commentary: Seeing mental health as we see physical health

Commentary: Seeing mental health as we see physical health

We all feel pain and experience struggles at times in our lives. Some of our struggles bring us closer to those around us, while other struggles result in feeling isolated.

One crucial factor in how we experience our pain and heal from it is the support we receive from others. Stigma is one of the most significant barriers to sharing our pain and receiving support.

Hearing real stories from lawyers who have felt that fear of stigma, persisted through it, and come out stronger on the other side helps to diminish that stigma. One such story is from Geoff Spofford.

— Shawn Healy, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (Massachusetts)

By Geoffrey E. Spofford, BridgeTower Media Newswires

In 1999, I injured my knee ice skating as “Scratch,” the Worcester IceCats’ mascot. At the orthopedic surgeon’s office, I sat in the waiting room with two IceCats players talking about our injuries. I underwent three operations that year. My injury was obvious because of the brace on my leg and the crutches I used. My recovery took over a year. Twenty years later, people still ask me about it.

In 2006, I suffered from depression and anxiety. There was, and is, no operation for this, but the physical struggle was just as bad. There were no braces or crutches or visible signs of my battle with mental health.

Outside of my family and my office, I did not talk about my struggles. The stigma of mental health forced me to keep it private.

During the depths of my depression, I could barely eat. I lost 20 pounds. It was difficult to get more than an hour of sleep per night for several weeks. I tried sleeping in the basement to escape all lights.

I kept my depression and anxiety hidden from my three daughters because I did not want them to think their father was weak.

Getting ready to leave the house and go to work was agonizing. There were mornings when I climbed back into bed in my suit, with my shoes on, and only got going because of Juliana, my wife, and her incredible strength and compassion.

I do not think people understand the physicality of depression and anxiety and the way it overwhelms your body. I think people believe it is only “in your head.” They think someone who is depressed is just really sad; someone who is anxious has irrational fears.

These conceptions are wrong. Depression and anxiety envelopes your body. You feel it everywhere. In July 2006, when my daughters wanted me to swim in the pool, I was freezing even though it was 85 degrees outside.

I could not find enjoyment in anything I did. I felt like things would never get better. I couldn’t look people in the eye. I sat as far away from people as I could. The simple question “How are you doing?” made me tremble. I could not answer it truthfully, like I could when people asked about my injured knee.

I was lucky. Juliana recognized I was struggling and encouraged me to get help, while taking on almost all of the responsibilities of parenting. One of my partners recognized I was struggling. He encouraged me to speak to someone. I appreciated the fact that he cared enough to talk to me. Too often people are concerned about intruding in people’s personal lives.

Urged by my wife and my partner, I turned to my PCP who prescribed Lexapro and referred me to a psychologist.

The psychologist had a practice on a street just outside of the Worcester business district.  The first time I went, I drove by the address three times, summoning up the courage and figuring out where to park so no one would see me. I slunk through the front door to the waiting room where I hoped I would not see anyone I knew. I sat in the corner of the waiting room with a magazine, unable to focus.

The first few visits I spent a good portion of my time crying. Slowly, I began to improve.  I still had the fear, however, of someone learning about my “weakness,” my struggles that had me seeing a shrink.

Assistance from trained professionals, medication and the support of my family, friends and co-workers helped me recover, just as I did with my knee injury.

On several occasions over the last 15 years, I felt symptoms of depression manifesting themselves, and I sought professional help from the same psychologist. I knew getting help was the right thing to do, and I was not embarrassed about where I parked or who might see me. Self-awareness and the awareness from my wife and co-workers help me prevent full-fledged depressive episodes.

As with alcoholics, people who suffer from mental health problems know that they are not cured but need to be aware of how they are feeling and address difficulties without letting them get out of control.

Longtime Red Sox player and broadcaster Jerry Remy died last fall after well-known battles with cancer. I will always remember Jerry Remy as one of the first public figures to openly discuss the fact that he was fighting depression.

Since then, other public figures have opened up about their struggles with mental health.  Lindsay Vonn raced down mountains at nearly 80 mph. There were times after her races that she found herself isolating in her hotel rooms. We knew when she crashed and blew out her knee, but her struggles with mental health were kept silent. Tennis star Naomi Osaka and U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles have had recent public struggles with mental health issues.

Sadly, we also know the names of people who’ve lost their struggles with mental health, some who struggled openly and others who we never knew were suffering. Robin Williams comes to mind immediately. One of the funniest people ever, his suicide made you wonder if he was hiding his pain with comedy and laughter.

Recently, two suicides occurred on the same day: Lauren Sampson, a tremendously accomplished lawyer with Lawyers for Civil Rights, and Chelsea Kryst, Miss USA and a lawyer. Both were 30 and both were accomplished women of color. Their lives held such promise yet ended much too early because of mental health conditions that were not properly addressed and likely kept hidden — due to a stigma that does not exist when someone suffers a physical, observable injury.

We need to get rid of this stigma.

I am president of a remarkably collegial bar association, the Worcester County (Massachusetts) Bar Association. I understand that telling my story of my struggles with depression and anxiety is easier for me than it is for a young lawyer who has concerns about the stigma and the perceptions if she or he opens up about personal struggles. My hope is that people reading this will accept that mental health struggles can affect anyone. Offering help to someone shows you care. Seeking professional help is a sign of strength.

At the November meeting of the WCBA Executive Committee, we were honored to have Heidi Alexander, director of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee on Attorney Well-Being, and attorney Marianne LeBlanc, co-chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Attorney Well-Being Committee, speak with us about the importance of attorney well-being and self-care.

The Supreme Judicial Court, in a recent decision, recognized the issue of mental health and attorney well-being as critically important. The SJC’s Standing Committee on Attorney Well-Being has a website with resources that span many areas of the legal practice. The MBA’s Attorney Well-Being Committee has created a tool kit for attorney well-being.

Alexander and LeBlanc are working with some tremendous and committed lawyers and judges, including the WCBA’s Judge Jennifer Ginsburg, who serves on the SJC’s Standing Committee on Attorney Well-Being. Collectively, these committees and their members seek to bring to everyone’s attention the critical need to address attorney well-being and to reduce the stressors that bring about unhealthy lifestyles with overwhelming pressures and little enjoyment.

I am proud to say that the WCBA is beginning an Ad Hoc Committee on Attorney Well-Being to emphasize the importance of caring for yourself and your colleagues.

Take care of yourself and keep an eye on those around you for indicators that your friends, family or colleagues may need assistance.

Geoffrey E. Spofford is president of the Worcester County (Massachusetts) Bar Association and a partner at Lian Zarrow in Worcester with a general practice that includes personal injury, criminal defense and general litigation. He enjoys bicycling, canoeing/kayaking, and skiing. Most importantly, he treasures time with his family.