'You are not alone': Law prof who considered suicide tells his story
Charlotte School of Law professor Brian Clarke has a message for lawyers and law students battling depression and anxiety: You are not alone.
• In a 1997 study of term life insurance claims made in a Canadian bar insurance program, nearly 11 percent of the lawyer deaths were suicides. Suicides were the third leading cause of death for the period studied, from 1994 to 1996, and the lawyer suicide rate was nearly six times the suicide rate for the U.S. population in the United States and Canada.
• Almost 12 percent of the lawyers who responded to a quality of life survey by the North Carolina Bar Association in 1991 said they contemplated suicide at least once a month, and 26 percent had clinical depression.
• About 40 percent of law students studied by Dr. Andrew Benjamin were clinically depressed by graduation. Before law school, the students were no more depressed than the general population, where about 8 percent are depressed.
Clarke says practicing law can be difficult partly because of lawyer personalities (lawyers are perfectionist Type A’s), partly because the business side of law practice is a constant challenge, and partly because of the emotional toll of losing.
“Whatever the problem, the client is counting on the lawyer to fix it,” Clarke writes. “Every lawyer I know takes that expectation and responsibility very seriously. As much as you try not to get emotionally invested in your client’s case or problem, you often do. When that happens, losing hurts. Letting your client down hurts. This pain leads to reliving the case and thinking about all of the things you could have done better. This then leads to increased vigilance in the next case. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, for some lawyers this leads to a constant fear of making mistakes, then a constant spike of stress hormones that, eventually, wear the lawyer down. The impact of this constant bombardment of stress hormones can be to trigger a change in brain chemistry that, over time, leads to major depression.”
Clarke is trying to battle the stigma associated with depression. He tells his own story to his first-year civil procedure class and offers himself as a resource to students who are experiencing similar problems.
Clarke was diagnosed with severe clinical depression in late 2005.
“While I do not remember all of the details of my descent into the hole, it was certainly rooted in trying to do it all—perfectly,” he writes. “After my second child was born, I was trying to be all things to all people at all times. Superstar lawyer. Superstar citizen. Superstar husband. Superstar father. Of course, this was impossible. The feeling that began to dominate my life was guilt. A constant, crushing guilt. Guilt that I was not in the office enough because I was spending too much time with my family. Guilt that I was letting my family down because I was spending too much time at work. Guilt that I was letting my bosses down because I was not being the perfect lawyer to which they had become accustomed. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. The deeper I sunk into the hole, the more energy I put into maintaining my facade of super-ness and the less energy was left for either my family or my clients. And the guiltier I felt. It was a brutal downward spiral. Eventually, it took every ounce of energy I had to maintain the facade and go through the motions of the day. The facade was all there was. Suicide seemed rational.”
Clarke’s wife called his law firm and said he would need to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. A colleague put Clarke in touch with the with the North Carolina State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program and with a federal public defender who had recovered from depression.
Clarke says he will continue to take medication and see a therapist for the rest of his life. “Had I not gotten help, I would not be writing this post because I would likely not be alive today,” he says. “No amount of will power or determination could have helped me climb out of that hole. Only by treating my disease with medication and therapy was I able to recover, control my illness and get my life back. …
“I write this because I know that when you are depressed you feel incredibly, profoundly alone. You feel that you are the only person on earth who has felt the way you do. You feel like no one out there in the world understands what you are dealing with. You feel like you will never feel ‘normal’ again.
“But you are not alone.”
Hat tip to Corporate Counsel.