Attorney suicide: What every lawyer needs to know
I woke up to find these words in an email: “He committed suicide.”
Suicide: the action of killing oneself intentionally. I stood, staring at my iPhone as the word suicide repeated over and over in my head. There were so many emotions that washed over me all at once: anger, fear, regret, remorse, grief—and others that I have no words for.
This is the first time I was touched by suicide. As though I was on autopilot, I showered, got dressed and went to work. It seemed strange that time continued to pass and all of my day’s obligations still existed despite this tragedy.
Later that day, I searched for all the emails we exchanged and read each one. I looked at the words said and unsaid. I wanted to find the implied words; the words I should have heard. I went to Google, typed in his name and read through all 14 pages of Google results. I read through his Facebook posts. I don’t know exactly what I was looking for or why I was doing this, but I did it. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I must have missed something. Maybe if I found some clue that he was reaching out for help, I could go from grieving to being angry at myself.
After Justin died, suicide went from an abstract idea to reality. A few years later, when I fell into a deep depression, I caught myself thinking about suicide as a way to escape. Fortunately, with a combination of therapy and medication, it got better.
WHY DOES IT HAPPEN?
To fully understand the conundrum of suicide within the legal profession, it is important to assess factors that can lead to depression. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers, according to the American Psychological Association. Substance abuse rates within the legal profession are also much higher than for the general population. Clinical depression and substance abuse are highly correlated with suicide rates. The legal industry has the 11th-highest incidence of suicide among professions.
According to Alex Yufik, clinical rehabilitation coordinator for the State Bar of California’s Lawyer Assistance Program, common contributing factors for lawyer suicide include depression, anxiety, job stress, unfulfilled expectations and a perceived sense of failure.
According to Rachel Fry, a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Alabama, who often works with lawyers, “Lawyers tend to score higher in pessimistic thinking, which often results in higher success rates and becoming a better lawyer. However, this type of thinking is also highly correlated with depression.” What makes you a better lawyer can also predispose you to depression.
Additionally, lawyers are expected to work—and be successful—in adversarial situations. They have unpredictable schedules, and they often lack tools to deal with stress. All of this predisposes them to chronic stress and/or depression. Lawyers are also expected to be the ultimate problem-solver. Fry says she often hears lawyers say that the expectation is that they are “a superhero” with no room for error or humanness. Furthermore, the mental health stigma often discourages identification, discussions and access to care. Chronic stress and depression often trigger unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse and personal problems, which can sometimes result in suicide or suicidal ideations.
WHAT ARE SOME WARNING SIGNS?
According to Fry, the warning signs of suicide aren’t always clear. Some individuals outwardly share their suicidal thoughts or plans, while others might keep their intentions secret. The main thing to look for is changes in patterns—someone acting differently, even if it feels insignificant. Changes in patterns can include excessive sadness or moodiness; expressing helplessness or feeling defeated—that their circumstances can’t improve in the future.
Examples could include someone losing their sense of humor, someone continuing to be fully engaged but becoming more agitated and/or drinking more. While some of these signs mirror depressive symptoms, it is sometimes difficult to determine when the line shifts from depression to suicidal thinking, especially if someone is not seeing a professional.
Some obvious signs include someone talking about suicide, death or dying; seeking
access to firearms or pills; giving away important possessions; experiencing relief or sudden improvement in symptoms and telling people goodbye for seemingly no reason. The person may also exhibit sudden calmness after making a decision to end his or her life.
Some more subtle signs can include withdrawing from family and friends, experiencing mood swings, feeling hopeless or trapped, increased substance use and/or experiencing sleep changes.
Often these changes can be brought on by a recent trauma or life crisis, including the death of a loved one, a divorce or breakup or a diagnosis of a major illness.
According to Yufik, approximately 50 to 75 percent of those considering suicide will give some warning sign. Every threat of suicide should be taken seriously.
WHAT IF YOU FEEL A COLLEAGUE IS AT RISK?
If you suspect a colleague is at risk for suicide, Fry says, remind yourself that regardless of the concerns you might have—offending them, overstepping a line or questioning if you will know what to do—there is some reason you are seeing a red flag. Even if your instincts are to avoid the situation, you might be the only one noticing and thus the only one with the opportunity to reach out to that person. While it can be uncomfortable to have the conversation, it is worth taking the time. It can play an important role in preventing suicidal behavior.
Here are some guidelines to remember when talking with someone who might be at risk for suicide.
- It is important to be direct, listen, refrain from judgment, remain calm and not agree to be sworn to secrecy.
- It is important to take action (remove a gun or pills, encourage them to get to a safe location) and to assist them in obtaining additional help (crisis line, emergency room or another trained professional). Many people are afraid that asking someone if they have suicidal thoughts will make them worse; this is not the case. Talking with them can plant a seed and possibly create a safe place for them to share their experience.
WHAT CAN LAW FIRMS DO?
Law firms should take an active role in suicide prevention. Law firms traditionally have not viewed well-being as an important part of a firm’s existence and reputation. In fact, it is often treated as antithetical to the billable hour and prestige. This is shortsighted. The lack of transparency about suicide continues to build a stigma in our profession. There is negative bias against hiring mental health professionals or implementing wellness programs in law firms
Firms have a unique opportunity to eradicate this stigma and to make wellness a part of their overall firm culture. Such changes are copacetic with the financial strength and reputation of the firm. And those firms that fail to confront this reality are going to suffer in the long run for being afraid to address a known lawyer culture problem. In August, the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession launched the Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers to help lawyers with substance-use disorders and mental health issues, and in the next month launched its Well-Being Pledge Campaign. By early December, 42 law firms and one corporate legal department had signed the pledge.
Additionally, it is important that lawyers and staff are aware of mental health services and benefits available (coverage and access to counseling), so they can be accessed easily if needed. At the very least, there needs to be a dialogue within the firm regarding mental health, resources available and an identified person (whether it is a partner, HR person or mental health professional) who can help the firm figure out the best course of action depending on the situation.
It’s important to remember that while not every lawyer may develop a mental illness, each of us must care for our own mental well-being.
Updated on Jan. 29 to revise a subhead to conform to the ABA Journal‘s style.
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of
Read more: Tools help lawyers and legal employers deal with substance-abuse disorders
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author ofThe Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco.