This is not another lame lawyer joke.  I want to tell you the story of a friend who was a lawyer many years ago in a small town in Arkansas. He was a 1975 graduate of the University Of Arkansas School Of Law. One of his professors would later become the 42nd President of the United States--Bill Clinton.

My friend, let’s call him “Ed”, hung out his shingle in his Arkansas hometown and practiced family law.  Like many lawyers as we’ve learned in recent years, Ed suffered from major depression. The stress of being a lawyer is enormous 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 over Ed’s suicide.

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”.

According to a recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention studylawyers rank 4th behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians (in that order) in terms of the highest per capita suicide rate. It is middle aged, white trial lawyers who are most likely to kill themselves.

Working lawyers are thought to have higher rates of depression than the average U.S. citizen. Some research indicates their rates are approximately 3.6 times that of average occupations. Of course, not all lawyers suffer from depression and suicidal ideation, it just happens to be more common in this particular occupation.

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

The New York Post reported on the suicide of 56-year-old lawyer Joseph Gioffi last February.

“He was a nice guy but was quiet and withdrawn,’’ a neighbor said.

Mr. Gioffi jumped to his death from the 15th floor of his luxury Chelsea apartment building early one Sunday morning after leaving two notes behind—one in his wallet and the other in his apartment.  Police say he may have been taking medication for anxiety or depression.

In late 2008, a student at the Charleston (SC) School of Law committed suicide.  Around that same time, a student at the USC School of Law died of alcohol poisoning.

The rate of substance abuse among lawyers is twice that of the general population. The South Carolina Bar formed the HELP Task Force in November 2008 and to examine the problem developed the quality of life survey.

The skyrocketing rates of depression and suicide in recent years have led to the implementation of mandatory psychological evaluations for lawyers in certain states.

Estimates from around the country indicate that the incidence of substance abuse among lawyers is as much as double the national average. Substance abusers are 10 times more likely to commit suicide.

My friend, acclaimed California trial lawyer Gary Gwilliam, knows something about alcoholism and is reaching out to other attorneys showing them a better way.

As Gary told his story in Plaintiff Magazine, June 11, 1984 was the day he began his first serious attempt at sobriety.

The magazine noted that “A failed intervention set up by his second wife, Liz, and his unyielding resistance to Alcoholics Anonymous programs – something he attributes directly to his biological father – left Gary to clean up on his own. Reading became his rehabilitation. He began with books about the disease and was taken in. He then turned to titles under philosophy, religion and other self-improvement areas, absorbing volumes of information that focused on getting and staying well.

The result, he says, was a spiritual awakening and a realization that alcohol truly was an impediment to living a full life. With the exception of a brief relapse two years later, Gary has been sober ever since.”

I highly recommend Gary’s book Getting a Winning Verdict in My Personal Life for anyone in law or any other profession who is fighting the demon of mental illness and/or alcoholism.

As always in my blog posts, the bottom line is forget the stigma and reach out for help from a trained professional before your life ends far too soon as did my 35-year-old brother’s and 40-year-old sister’s.  

Sometime in 1866, probably in his lodgings in San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel near Sutter and Montgomery, a broke freelance journalist named Samuel Clemens put a pistol to his head. We know this, or think we do, because of a marginal note he scribbled into a book the year before he died under his other name, Mark Twain:

“Of the demonstrably wise there are but two: those who commit suicide, & those who keep their reasoning faculties atrophied with drink.”
- Notebook, 1898

What we don't know is why he came so close to suicide in San Francisco in 1866, or why, thank God, he came no closer.

That was before he leaped into literary history in 1867 with his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”.

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.”

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Lawyers don't usually seek professional help because they fear people will not take them seriously if they do. They are most prone to anxiety because of the stress involved in their job. They try to get comfort from alcohol and substance abuse. If you know anyone who has symptoms of depression, call an ambulance before they do anything to hurt themselves. Oh, I think it's too much. Maybe just lend an ear and watch them closely.


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