I Object: Lawyers, Depression and Suicide

I asked in a blog post in July 2015 why are lawyers killing themselves? Simply stated, the legal profession is prone to higher incidences of depression than the general population. One study in 1990 by Johns Hopkins University found that lawyers as a group are nearly four times more likely to suffer from depression than the average person.

A staggering law school debt, inability to establish a private practice forcing many young lawyers to join a large law firm where pressure for billable hours is enormous and social alienation are just a few of the factors contributing to anxiety, depression and substance abuse.  According to a 1991 Johns Hopkins University study of 105 professions, lawyers top the list in the incidence of major depression. Other studies indicate that the rate of substance abuse among lawyers is double that of the national average.

This crisis in the legal profession was driven home to me when I lost a friend to suicide. My friend, let’s call him “Ed”, hung out his shingle in his Arkansas hometown after graduating from the University of Arkansas Law School where Bill Clinton was teaching. "Ed" practiced  family law.  Like many lawyers as we’ve learned in recent years, Ed suffered from major depression. The stress and how to manage it is something I doubt Professor Clinton or any other teacher addressed.  Ed self-medicated with alcohol to the point he became a raging, often violent alcoholic at home. After his wife divorced him, Ed got sober and attended AA meetings every day. Unfortunately, alcoholism was only half of his problem. He did not seek treatment for mental illness because of the stigma attached to mental illness for anyone in his profession much less the public in general. It was even discouraged by his AA sponsor who asserted rather self-righteously that anyone taking an antidepressant could not claim to be “sober”.

As Ed’s depressions deepened and his ability to work weakened, Ed decided one Friday afternoon to check into an upscale local hotel frequented by tourists visiting the Ozarks in his part of Arkansas. He scribbled a note on a hotel notepad in his room, took a 38-calibre pistol from his briefcase, put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Ed left behind two young boys who lived with his ex-wife and a lot of friends in AA as well as other lawyers shocked by his suicide.

Statistics indicate that lawyers are 1.33 times more likely to kill themselves than an average citizen. Consider these grim figures:

·        Fifteen attorney suicides since 2010 in Kentucky

·        Six attorney suicides in 18 months in South Carolina

·        One suicide a month for an entire year in Oklahoma

Dan Lukasik founded Lawyers with Depression after he started descending into an incapacitating depression. 

"The stigma is huge with mental illness and depression in this country,” Dan said. “You're supposed to be a problem solver; you're supposed to be a superman or superwoman. You're not supposed to have problems," he said. 

"The general public already has a problem with lawyers and when I started to talk about this problem they didn't want to hear it. They thought, 'a person who makes a lot of money and has this job should not be having this problem,’ " Dan explained.

As I reflect on my friend Ed’s life and death more than 20 years later and as I engage in my campaign against mental illness stigma, I want to reach out to students in law schools to tell them what I wish I had known what I know today when I was a graduate student in journalism school. I faced similar pressures meeting deadlines and trying to beat the competition all the while self-medicating with alcohol for chronic depression too afraid of stigma to reach out for help.  I also look at Ed’s death and whisper to myself “there, but for the Grace of God, go I”.

To all in the legal profession or any other profession, remember the words of British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill who had his own mental health challenges:

“If you're going through hell, keep going.”