Civil Rights & Wrongs

Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself – Doris Lessing

Stress, Depression, Suicide Continue To Plague Legal Profession

On the Threshold of Eternity
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Admittedly, unless one is writing about “right-to-die” cases like Teri Schiavo or Dr. Kevorkian, one does not typically write about suicide as a civil rights topic.  However, much has been written lately about suicide, and for good reason.

Suicides in the workplace jumped 28% this year over last year, according to statistics released in August by the U.S. Dept. of Labor.

As a recent Huffington Post article points out, the economic fallout from the recession contributes to increases in suicidal behavior.

In addition, our military’s growing suicide problem is finally surfacing in mainstream media articles.

For decades now, grim statistics on stress, depression and suicide in the legal profession have persisted.  In this month’s issue of the ABA Journal, you will find some sobering must-read articles about these issues.  Speaking as someone who lives with anxiety and depression, every lawyer can benefit by reading these articles.

Even if you consider yourself not to be suffering from undue stress, anxiety or depression, chances are a friend or colleague of yours is suffering. In the U.S., for example, approximately 19 million people suffer from clinical depression, including major depression, bipolar disorder, and dysthymia.  Anxiety disorder – the most common form of mental illness – affects approximately 40 million people in the U.S.  One of the persons affected might be your office mate, gym buddy, partner, or co-counsel.  In a profession where the members are already at a greater risk for depression and suicide, ignoring the warning signs of depression can mean the loss of someone you care about.

Here are some typical warnings signs for suicide:

  • Appearing depressed or sad most of the time.
    (Untreated depression is the number one cause for suicide.)
  • Talking or writing about death or suicide.
  • Withdrawing from family and friends.
  • Feeling hopeless.
  • Feeling helpless.
  • Feeling strong anger or rage.
  • Feeling trapped — like there is no way out of a situation.
  • Experiencing dramatic mood changes.
  • Abusing drugs or alcohol.
  • Exhibiting a change in personality.
  • Acting impulsively.
  • Losing interest in most activities
  • Experiencing a change in sleeping habits.
  • Experiencing a change in eating habits.
  • Performing poorly at work or in school.
  • Giving away prized possessions.
  • Writing a will.
  • Feeling excessive guilt or shame.
  • Acting recklessly.

According to one of the articles in the ABA Journal, the Lawyers’ Assistance Program has seen a 9.2 percent increase from 2008 in the number of attorneys it serves for issues related to depression.  The Lawyers’ Assistance Program has seen a 363 percent increase in attorneys suffering from depression since 2001-2002.

If you do nothing else, please read the ABA Journal articles.  I scanned one brief article about the work being done by the Lawyers’ Assistance Program, with a toll free number, which you can find in the Box.  Beyond reading these articles, each of us should question why it is that leaders in our profession – despite admirable efforts by programs such as the Lawyers’ Assistance Program – cannot seem to get a grip on the problems of stress, depression and suicide in the legal profession.

What is it about our profession that seems to foster self-destructive mental health issues among its members at rates substantially higher than most other professions?  Is it the “barracuda” lawyer mentality?  Do we sow the seeds of self-destructive behavior in the way we train law students?  Do our professional organizations adequately support us the way that the AMA, for example, supports its members?  Should we be doing a better job of educating the bench on how to recognize warning signs exhibited by attorneys appearing before them?

I have my opinions in response to these and other questions.  I welcome yours as well.  For now, my sincere congratulations to the ABA for focusing so much attention this month on the ongoing problem of depression and suicide in the legal profession.  I hope this focus is not isolated.  Much work still needs to be done, and with this particular issue, it may be a matter of life or death.

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