Mentally Ill Jailed More Often Than Hospitalized

As some of you may know, May is Mental Health Month.  If you are interested in mental health issues, you may want to check out this excellent resource, Mental Health America.  I will be adding them to the “Resources for Disabled Persons” page as well.  What I did not know until I reviewed the Mental Health America website is that May has been Mental Health Month since 1949.

I find that fact astonishing considering that bias (or, at best, discomfort with) mental health issues forced Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton from the 1972 Democratic Presidential ticket alongside, George McGovern.  The fact that May has been Mental Health Month since 1949 also calls into question a shocking report from USA Today, released earlier this month.  You can link to the USA Today article here.

According to the article, a seriously mentally ill person in the USA is three times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized.  Furthermore, in no state was a seriously mentally ill person — someone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, for example — less likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized.  States that stood out at opposite ends of the spectrum, however, were North Dakota and Nevada.  In North Dakota, a mentally ill person was, at least, equally likely to be hospitalized as incarcerated.  In Nevada, however, a mentally ill person was 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized.

Before any readers jump to the conclusion that this article is just one more piece of liberal dribble – these statistics were based on a report prepared by the National Sheriff’s Association, hardly a bastion of wild liberalism, and the Treatment Advocacy Center.  Kudos to the Sheriff’s Association for participating in this study.  In my opinion, it is incredibly important to see law enforcement taking a leading role in getting this kind of information out to the public because, unfortunately, law enforcement in many areas often lacks adequate training to appropriately deal with the mentally ill.  As a result, these citizens’ frequently find themselves abused, mis-used, wrongly incarcerated, and their conditions severely exacerbated.

My personal thanks to National Alliance on Mental Illness for circulating the USA Today article on LinkedIn.  For more information on the subject of mental health generally, please check out the website at National Institute of Mental Health.

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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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