You get to be 40 and you figure you’ve outrun your past.
A father who used booze to drown stresses endured in the Pacific during World War II, who was tough on his five kids and died at age 56, when you were just 19.
A mother who spent far too many days on the couch in front of the TV, eating to comfort her own sorrows.
Grow up in such circumstances and you learn to push through adversity, maybe go to college, get a good job, start a family.
Yet here was Dan Lukasik, a successful Buffalo attorney, father and husband, struggling with sleep. Straining to focus as managing partner of a law firm he helped start. Pulling into quiet parking lots to cry for up to an hour at a time behind the wheel of his car.
“It didn’t provide any relief,” he said of the tears. “I didn’t understand what was happening to me.”
Lukasik had slipped into his first bout of clinical depression, a debilitating condition that can strike anyone, anytime, from childhood into old age. It discomfited his parents, and now was raining down on his life.
“It’s like crossing the border of another country,” Lukasik said. “You enter this land that is devoid of joy, that is very painful. It feels like a physical thing. It does not feel like an emotional thing. The worst part of it is a lot of people don’t feel anything.”
Lukasik was hardly alone. Depression will endanger 1 in 3 Americans at some point during their lives – and 1 in 5 in any given year. In half of those cases, it comes with anxiety. In many cases, substance abuse becomes part of its damaging force.
Lukasik and other Western New York mental health experts want those caught in the worst of depression’s grip to know this: They do not suffer alone, help is available, things can get a whole lot better – and there is a roadmap to recovery and good mental health that includes the following steps.
SEEK A DIAGNOSIS
“Identifying and recognizing the signs are a good first step,” said Lukasik, now 55 and one among many who let symptoms fester for years, even decades.
“There’s many, many people out there with a mental health condition who haven’t sought treatment,” Erie County Mental Health Commissioner Michael Ranney said. “Either they haven’t recognized it, it hasn’t affected them significantly enough or they’re afraid to get help because of the stigma attached. It’s fairly normal to have some sad and anxious feelings, but if they’ve lasted a while and they’ve affected your functioning, that’s when people need to think about getting help.”
Lifetime risk of depression is about 1 in 3, meaning about 400,000 people in Western New York will experience it at some point.
About 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. – 43.8 million people – experiences mental illness in a given year.
Almost 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. – 10 million – experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
Leading symptoms of depression include an unusually sad mood that lingers at least two weeks, and an abandonment of interests and activities that used to be enjoyable. Others include:
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Unwarranted, but intense feelings of worthlessness and guilt
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Moving more slowly, becoming easily agitated, or both
- Having a hard time sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of interest in eating or eating too much
- Thinking about death or wishing to be dead
Lukasik felt many of these feelings – for years – before they became unbearable.
“It was a cumulative effect,” he said. “Depression often doesn’t come out of the blue for people. There’s footprints left genetically and from experiences people have had.”
Lukasik was glad he mustered the courage to get help, not only for himself but for the benefit of his family, especially his wife, Kelsey, and their then-2-year-old daughter, Iliana.
“Whatever I was going through before it was named, I really thought, truly, that it was my fault, that there was something weak about me, something wrong I was doing in my life,” Lukasik said. “Maybe I was in the wrong profession or wrong job. Then the psychiatrist said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re sick. This is a health condition. That took it out of the realm of me beating myself up, not being able to overcome it myself. I needed medical care, I got it, and it helped.”
ESTABLISH A TREATMENT PLAN
Mental illness can vary from mild to severe, with intermittent flare-ups, or “episodes,” that are particularly important to address.
“The greater the severity, the more treatment, intervention and help you’ll need,” Lukasik said. The psychiatrist who saw him 15 years ago told him he was in the midst of a major depression that could be treated with medication, some time off work, counseling and other support.
“Fortunately, Buffalo and Western New York have an abundance of resources,” said Chris Warden, a peer support specialist with Compeer of Greater Buffalo, one of several agencies that helps those with mental illness.
RELATED CONTENT: See a list of resources below; read more statistics here.
Loved ones – including families, friends and co-workers – should be courageous enough to ask someone who may show depressive symptoms, “How are you feeling? You seem a little down lately,” Ranney said, “and steer them to help.” Because depression is common, many primary care doctors can screen for it and work with other health care specialists to create a treatment plan, the mental health commissioner said.
Lukasik urged those looking to get better to become an active partner in that plan by using the online Depression Toolkit designed by the University of Michigan Depression Center. It can be found at depressiontoolkit.org.
“Empower passions,” said Warden, who also has confronted mental illness. “Maybe it’s art or riding a bike or going to the gym, or yoga. For me, it was martial arts.”
Lukasik doesn’t dwell on his disease, said his wife, a fellow attorney. “He listens to what doctors and his family say. He follows up like he’s supposed to, takes his medication like he’s supposed to. He exercises. He tries to eat healthy. All that plays into it. Even if he’s down, he’ll make arrangements to do something. He’ll go for a walk. He’ll meet someone for lunch. It really brings him up helping others, too. He really is remarkable. He’s helped so many people ... and helping others has been cathartic for him.”
Lukasik also has avoided using alcohol or other substances. “Some peoples’ way of dealing with some emotional problems might be an attempt to self-medicate,” Ranney said, “but if you’re having a hard time with depression, you’re only going to make it worse by drinking.”
Empowerment came with the greater understanding Lukasik gained about mental illness. “Depression is a part of life but not your entire life,” he said. “Nowadays, you can live a full, wonderful life. It’s only part of who you are.”
Learning you have depression helps start you on a road to recovery – but isn’t easy.
Lukasik, a lifelong practicing Catholic, often prayed for the dreadful feelings to pass, to get on with the awesome things in his life, but it didn’t work that way. “Depression doesn’t care about these things,” he said. He has grown to understand more about depression and other forms of mental illness. He has a chronic disease, one to be respected and taken seriously; one that, like other chronic diseases, can flare up at any time. “It’s not something you can handle on your own,” he said, though his faith helps.
Lukasik chose to take better care of himself, routinely see a counselor and regularly talk with others in similar shoes. “In the beginning, it was really hard,” Kelsey Lukasik said. “It was the deepest and the scariest time. As he’s managed it and developed all his coping strategies, he’s been able to weather it a little bit better. He always says it’s like the weather. It comes and goes. He’ll have to suffer with it for a couple of days and then it lifts.”
HELP BREAK THE STIGMA
People wouldn’t tell you to ignore your cancer or diabetes – or snap out of those diseases. It happens all too often when it comes to mental illness. The conditions differ, but all involve physical changes in the body – and some people can forget that the body includes the brain.
“In the culture as a whole, there is a cloud that overhangs people who acknowledge in a public way that they suffer from depression. That extends to the legal profession,” said Stephen Halpern, a veteran Western New York lawyer and emeritus professor at University at Buffalo Law School who has known Lukasik for two decades.
"Some colleagues have said of Dan, 'What is it he has to be depressed about? He has a good life, a good job. He’s well paid. He’s got a beautiful daughter, everything anybody could want,'" Halpern said.
“People don’t say that about people who suffer from cancer. ... One of the great contributions Dan has made is the work that he’s done over all of these years to try to put the lie to these false assumptions.”
The shift came slowly for Lukasik.
When it comes to depression and other mental illness, “a great part of the problem is still stigma,” he said. He recalled first seeing that psychiatrist 15 years ago far outside Buffalo. “I didn’t want anybody who knew me to stop me and ask, ‘Where are you going?’ I was very ashamed, scared.”
Almost a decade ago, Lukasik decided to tackle the stigma publicly, after he learned that lawyers suffer depression at two to three times the rate of Americans as a whole – a statistic studies have tied in part to the stress, financial challenges and adversarial nature that often comes with success in the legal profession. Some attorneys he approached early on advised him to share his story anonymously, for fear it might hurt his relationships with fellow lawyers and prevent him from securing clients to his personal injury practice, which he moved several years ago to Maxwell Murphy Attorneys at Law.
Lukasik thought helping destigmatize such a common condition was best to do out front. He started a website, lawyerswithdepression.com. He got grant money to produce a short documentary, “A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession.” He started speaking to lawyers and others across the country, and will talk next week to 100 law students at Harvard University.
His website has had more than 1 million hits since he established it in 2007, and has become a resource not only for lawyers but anyone facing depression.
“He’s made an immense contribution both within the legal profession and beyond,” Halpern said. “I’m filled with admiration and respect for what he has chosen to do, not only to acknowledge publicly that he has suffered but to go across Western New York and the nation and address the need to be honest and open and empathetic when it comes to people with this illness.”
Meanwhile, life for Lukasik is better. Not perfect, but better.
“I’m a person who’s struggled with depression much of my life, yet I’m a practicing lawyer,” he said. “I think I’ve done a good job helping other people. I’m trying to do as much as I can going forward getting the word out on this topic.”
The following agencies can help individuals and families address depression and other mental illness:
Mental Health Association of Erie County (eriemha.org; 886-1242)
Offers a variety of services, including support groups, to adults, children and families.
Offers a variety of resources, family support groups and Homefront Program for veterans with mental health concerns.
New York State Office of Mental Health (omh.ny.gov, 1-800-597-8481)
Clearinghouse of mental health programs, services and providers across New York.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (samhsa.gov, 1-877-726-4727)
Federal agency designed to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness provides educational resources and strategies for individuals and communities.
2-1-1 WNY (211wny.org, 211)
Connects callers 24/7 to health and human resources across the region.
Recovery International (recoveryinternational.org; 716-694-0104)
Hosts 10 support meetings in the region for adults who need help with depression, panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder or anger management.
Support for lawyers (lawyerswithdepression.com)
Dan Lukasik runs a depression support group for lawyers from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. every Friday at the Erie County Bar Association, 438 Main St., near Court Street.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org; 1-800-273-8255)
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon