Data shows that practitioners suffer a high rate of clinical depression. These are some reasons why, along with tips for balancing your mental health.
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It’s more than a temporary feeling of defeat after a transaction falls through or your business hits a lull. Depression, characterized by prolonged periods of sadness and a change in mood, energy, or behavior, affects real estate professionals at a high rate. The industry has the second-highest rate of clinically diagnosed depression among a wide range of professional occupations in the U.S., according to a 2014 study published in the academic journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. There are, of course, any number of factors that contribute to depression—and the job may be one of them.

“Real estate can be an incredibly rewarding but challenging and demanding job, and when you interact directly with customers like you do in real estate, it’s challenging to manage things like depression,” says Kevin Gilliland, executive director of mental health services group Innovation360 in Dallas. “You help people make one of the biggest decisions in life, and while there’s excitement, there’s also anxiety and fear.”

Real estate professionals cannot broadly be painted as a depressed group. But why is it that, as confirmed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the industry has higher percentages of workers who’ve been diagnosed with depression? In addition to factors such as family history, personality, and background, real estate practitioners contend with a high level of stress, wide swings in client emotions, and the job’s demanding nature. “Data shows industries known for higher risks of depression have frequent or difficult interactions, high client tension, and high stress levels,” Gilliland says. “When you let work cannibalize your life, you’ll significantly increase your depressive episode risk, and dealing with clients’ emotions can be contagious and make you more vulnerable to depression.”

Not only are practitioners giving of their time, energy, and resources but they work long hours—often leaving little room for self-care. You’re expected to be on top of your game without burdening clients with personal issues. “The biggest things my clients [who are in real estate] mention are the pressure to be ‘on’ and show everything is under control. Exuding upbeat, positive energy when it’s not how you feel can be a difficult mask to wear,” says Michele Quintin, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Shift Happens Therapy in Austin, Texas. “And when things don’t work out or you spend a lot of effort on a sale and it fails for reasons you can’t control, those might cause symptoms of depression.”

How Depression Manifests in Real Estate

A real estate agent in Georgia who has been diagnosed with depression says that although she’s usually motivated and focused, it’s difficult to match her “good-day motivation” when she’s in a “depression ditch.” Even small tasks can cause her mental strain. “There’s always that fleeting thought of, ‘I don’t know if I can do it today,’” says the agent, who asked to remain anonymous. “And when clients call but you want to text because you’re feeling depressed, it’s a way to hide. Even on medication and on sunny, gorgeous days, I still have to force myself [to get motivated], and that’s part of depression.”

Another agent in Georgia, who is in the same situation, says the highs and lows of the business likely exacerbate his depression. However, his medication, therapy, daily naps, and solo vacations now help him find better balance. “I sold about $16 million worth of property in three weekends. Then, everyone wanted their deposits back, and my depression hit for a year,” says the agent, who asked to remain anonymous. “Had I been on medication and in counseling [at the time], I could have dealt better with that disappointment. Now that stuff doesn’t bother me as much, as that outside intervention and medication help.”

An Oklahoma agent, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because she holds a powerful position at her brokerage, says her reluctance to say no affects her depression. “I feel it’s important to give back, but I need to know my limits and say no occasionally because if I don’t, it ends up hurting, overwhelming, and stressing me,” she says.

Quintin says recognizing and getting help for depression can be a time for self-reflection, a chance to slow down to avoid burnout, and an opportunity to pace yourself and learn your natural rhythm. The Oklahoma agent says depression “forced me to look deep within myself, get therapy, and talk about and face my skeletons. In a sense, I’m grateful for depression because it forced me to deal with things I tried to forget, and now I’ve released the guilt and worked through it.”

Tips on Getting Help

Because depression affects people differently, sales professionals who suffer from the condition may benefit from medication, eating a balanced diet, separating work from personal time, learning to decompress, or doing daily self-care. Others may improve with more frequent naps, vacations, working outside in the sunshine, exercise, therapy, or connecting more often with loved ones. The Centers for Disease Control suggest that treatment can help 80 percent of patients with depression improve.

An important first step is recognizing the most common symptoms: mood swings, feelings of helplessness, or changes in interest, sleep, energy, concentration, and appetite. “Realize depression can manifest in ways from memory problems to anger and aggression,” says John Huber, a clinical forensic psychologist and chairman of Mainstream Mental Health in Austin, Texas. “Maintenance is important because real estate success has to do with your personality and how you come across, and forgetting names or [having] a ticked-off attitude can be detrimental.”

Heidi McBain, a licensed therapist in Flower Mound, Texas, says that because real estate professionals are on tight schedules, online counseling may be a good option for getting help. “When people start feeling like they need more help, that’s when they need to reach out because, depending on severity, depression may not get better without treatment, counseling, and, in some cases, medication,” she says.

Advice From Colleagues

Real estate professionals who spoke to REALTOR® Magazine anonymously about depression shared their thoughts on maintaining balance:

  • “You’re not alone. The number of us that suffer from depression, anxiety, or mental illness diagnoses is astonishing. Tell trusted friends that if they don’t hear from you, they should check in on you. I look up positive affirmations on Pinterest and post them on Facebook, saying, ‘Tell me something good about this.’ When people start commenting positively, it totally shifts your mindset and makes coping with depression easier.”
  • “Depression is a chemical imbalance in your body, and we live in a fast-paced world, trying to keep up with everything. And it’s OK if you can’t keep up. Exercise increases those chemicals. I played tennis, and it was such a high that helped my depression and burning off steam.”
  • “Just like you wouldn’t be embarrassed seeing a doctor about cancer or a cough, don’t be embarrassed about seeking help [for depression]. It’s not something you solve on your own, and ‘getting over it’ or ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ aren’t options. It may take a few psychologists before finding one you enjoy, but real estate has peaks and valleys, and having someone in that valley with you is helpful.”