Personal Lives

Lawyer Personalities May Contribute to Increased Suicide Risk

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Personality characteristics often associated with lawyers, such as perfectionism and competitiveness, when combined with depression may be contributing to a higher suicide rate in the legal profession, an expert says.

Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, a group devoted to suicide prevention, says risk factors for suicide include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicide ideation, divorce and stress. And lawyers experience many of these risk factors at higher rates than the general population, he says. Lawyers are also more likely to be perfectionist and competitive, personality traits that make a person considering suicide less likely to seek help.

Those factors may be contributing to the increased suicide rate for lawyers, he says. A major study conducted some 20 years ago by the National Institute for Safety and Health found that male lawyers between the ages of 20 and 64 are more than twice as likely to die from suicide than men of the same age in other occupations.

A 1997 Canadian study found that suicide was the third leading cause of death among lawyers insured by the Canadian Bar Insurance Association. Cancer and heart problems were the leading reasons for death claims for the two-year period studied. The suicide rate was about 69 deaths per 100,000 population, nearly six times the suicide rate in the general population, according to a study summary.

Most at risk were lawyers and judges aged 48 to 65.

Berman cited several studies showing an increased incidence of risk factors for suicide in lawyers. They include: A 1991 North Carolina Bar Association study found 25 percent of lawyers suffered symptoms of anxiety three or more times a month in the last year. A 1999 article noted higher rates of divorce among female lawyers. A study in Washington state found that 18 percent of lawyers there were problem drinkers, a number that is twice the expected rate.

Berman spoke with the ABA Journal after news broke that the chairman of Kilpatrick Stockton’s Supreme Court and appellate advocacy practice died in an apparent suicide at the firm’s offices Thursday morning. The lawyer, Mark Levy, has argued 16 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The death follows an announcement yesterday that 24 lawyers at the firm were being laid off.

An e-mail sent to Levy Thursday morning produced this auto-reply message: “As of April 30, 2009, I can no longer be reached. If your message relates to a firm matter, please contact my secretary … . If it concerns a personal matter, please contact my wife … . Thanks.”

Berman listed these warning signs of suicide: 1. Thoughts of suicide. 2. Increased or excessive use of drugs or alcohol. 3. Feelings of hopelessness. 4. Feeling a loss of purpose, meaning or identity. 5. Feeling trapped. 6. Withdrawing from usual activities or from loved ones. 7. Unusual behavior, including more reckless behavior. 8. A dramatic mood change. 9. Signs of anxiety, including panic, insomnia and agitation. 10. Excessive anger or rage.

Suicide rates increased slightly during the Great Depression, but there was not an increased incidence of suicides during other recessions, according to Berman’s organization. However, unemployed individuals have between two and four times the suicide rate of those who are employed.

The ABA is sponsoring a continuing legal education program on lawyer suicide prevention on May 6. The title of the program is “What Lawyers Need to Know About Suicide During a Recession: Prevention, Identity and Law Firm Responsibility.”

The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs lists local assistance programs that can help troubled lawyers.

Updated at 9:50 a.m. on May 1 to include information about the ABA CLE program and the Canadian study.

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