Lawyers suffering from depression often don’t want to talk about it. But the profession needs to do more.

Since the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams on Monday, depression and mental illness have been the subject of copious column inches and a multitude of blogs. 

Recent conversations with a couple of law firm managers – one a senior chambers director and the other the managing partner at a London law firm – refocused my attention on the extent to which these conditions affect lawyers. Of the 515 files opened last year by LawCare, the free advice and support service, 12% concerned lawyers suffering from depression.

The Mental Health Foundation estimates that one in four people will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year, while LawCare suggests one in five lawyers will suffer from depression at some point in their lives.

So, depression is a relatively common condition that can affect anyone. That seems to be well understood, yet there remains widespread ignorance about it.

Some wrongly believe it to be a condition that its ’self-indulgent’ sufferers can just ’snap out of’ - they offer unhelpful solutions, extolling the sufferer to ‘cheer up’ and ‘pull yourself together’.

But depression is a physical as well as mental condition that can affect the entire body, as well as being a major cause of drug and alcohol abuse. It can render simple tasks like getting dressed or making a cup of tea feel overwhelming.

Depression is no more something that people can snap out of than they could snap out of a broken leg or a stroke.

Asking for help can be hard, as sufferers often feel no one cares about them. Lawyers, who spend so much of their time sorting out other people’s problems, may find it particularly hard to ask for help.

This is borne out by the two practice managers – who said their colleagues would often keep silent, even when it was obvious there was a problem.

When someone does ask for help, how should law firms and chambers best support them? It’s a difficult issue, both managers admit, and one that practices need to find better ways of addressing.

They demonstrate the problem thus: lawyers who are depressed often cope better when they are working, but due to their problems, they may under-perform or make mistakes. If complaints are made, that serves only to add to their anxiety.

Equally, suggesting the person takes a break can be unhelpful and - given the length of time that people can suffer (often years) -  pointless.

Both agreed that more needs to be done by the professions, which need to get over the taboo that still seems to make the problem so hard to address.

The legal profession is not alone in its shortcomings, of course. The incoming president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Professor Simon Wessely, reported this week that fewer than a third of people who suffer from common mental illnesses, such as depression, get any treatment for their condition. If the statistics were the same for cancer, he suggests, there would be a public outcry.

Perhaps now is the time for just such an outcry, for mental illness, like cancer, is a potentially fatal condition.

LawCare offers a free helpline.