You can never know the battles someone is fighting under the surface based on their outward appearance. That’s what Philip Kaplan told students while presenting with NAMI Baltimore’s In Our Own Voice program. He shared with them that the last time he was with a group of students from their school he was volunteering with a mock trial competition. At the time he looked the part of the “big impressive lawyer in a suit” but students would have never known he was fighting an invisible battle with depression that had left him unable to work for six months.
This time he was there to honestly share his story with the hope that it would increase compassion and reduce stigma towards those living with mental illness. He urged students to understand that if they are struggling with their mental health they’re not alone. He said “This is happening to everyone, even the best and brightest among us. People need to understand that and be open about it. That is why I am determined to openly talk about how my mental health has impacted my life without shame.”
Success Doesn’t Buy Happiness
Phil’s battle with depression started several years ago when he was working as a lawyer. From the outside looking in, Phil looked like he was thriving; he was a successful child welfare lawyer, he was respected by local judges and he had supportive friends. But inside, he was deeply unhappy. He had invested so much to become a lawyer, but his work often left him feeling powerless and sad.
After a while it became clear that this constant unhappiness had become depression. Phil was feeling hopeless and had trouble finding motivation to work. His depression continued to get worse, eventually causing him to leave his job.
Phil had internalized the belief that career success equals life success. He thought that if he was professionally successful; happiness, romantic love and life satisfaction would follow. Several years into his career it was clear that a successful career would not guarantee a happy life; it didn’t stop the loneliness, it didn’t help with dating, it didn’t make him any happier. He began to ask himself ‘what did I do all this for?’
Phil recognized that he was suffering from depression and sought professional help. He was able to talk openly about his mental health with his friends and family. Yet he had a hard time admitting that his mental health was affecting his ability to work. He didn’t realize it at the time, but his sense of self was connected to his image of professional success. As he said, “A lot of this has to do with toxic masculinity and the pressures that tell men ‘you better be successful or you’re a loser.’ It took me years to be able to recognize how I was being affected by this and to not think of my identity as my career.”
Don’t Wait for a Crisis
The life problems that contributed to Phil’s depression, including dissatisfaction at work and trouble finding romantic love, are often trivialized. He said “we need to recognize that even the problems we regard as common place can be major contributors to depression. We don’t pay enough attention to people who are really struggling but hide it well. We tend to minimize the problems people have. We need to show greater kindness to people who dealing with these issues; before it gets to the point of a crisis.”
Just as there was no one contributor to Phil’s depression, there will not be a magic bullet to alleviate it. Depression is an extremely complex chronic disease that’s affected by every aspect of life. His sense of despair reached crisis levels in 2017 when he came close to ending his life on the Key Bridge. Police officers intervened and helped connect him with urgent psychiatric care. He only got to that level of crisis once, but he recognizes that he will always have to be mindful of his mental health.
Today Phil makes managing his mental health a priority. His depression has improved but he still takes daily steps to support his recovery. He regularly goes to therapy, maintains close relationships with supportive friends, confides in his girlfriend and shares his story with NAMI. Formerly an atheist, faith has been an important part of Phil’s recovery journey. His faith helped him hold on to hope through the darkest days of his depression.
Your Story Counts
Many elements of Phil’s story may resonate with you. If the pressures of everyday life are leaving you feeling hopeless, anxious, or depressed, you can take steps to improve your mental health now. For those of you who are struggling, Phil has a message for you:
“Your feelings, whatever they are, are valid and deserving of sympathy and attention. Don’t think that your feelings and your story doesn’t count. Your story does count. What you are feeling is legitimate. You deserve compassion and you deserve to be heard.”
If you are seeking help in Baltimore City, call the Here2Help Hotline at (410) 433 5175 to reach someone who will listen to you and help you connect to care.