I woke up to find these words in an email: “He committed suicide.”
Suicide: the action of killing oneself intentionally. I stood, staring at my iPhone as the word suicide repeated over and over in my head. There were so many emotions that washed over me all at once: anger, fear, regret, remorse, grief—and others that I have no words for.
This is the first time I was touched by suicide. As though I was on autopilot, I showered, got dressed and went to work. It seemed strange that time continued to pass and all of my day’s obligations still existed despite this tragedy.
Later that day, I searched for all the emails we exchanged and read each one. I looked at the words said and unsaid. I wanted to find the implied words; the words I should have heard. I went to Google, typed in his name and read through all 14 pages of Google results. I read through his Facebook posts. I don’t know exactly what I was looking for or why I was doing this, but I did it. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I must have missed something. Maybe if I found some clue that he was reaching out for help, I could go from grieving to being angry at myself.
After Justin died, suicide went from an abstract idea to reality. A few years later, when I fell into a deep depression, I caught myself thinking about suicide as a way to escape. Fortunately, with a combination of therapy and medication, it got better.
WHY DO LAWYERS COMMIT SUICIDE?
To fully understand the conundrum of suicide within the legal profession, it is important to assess factors that can lead to depression. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers, according to the American Psychological Association. Substance abuse rates within the legal profession are also much higher than for the general population. Clinical depression and substance abuse are highly correlated with suicide rates. The legal industry has the 11th-highest incidence of suicide among professions.
According to Alex Yufik, clinical rehabilitation coordinator for the State Bar of California’s Lawyer Assistance Program, common contributing factors for lawyer suicide include depression, anxiety, job stress, unfulfilled expectations and a perceived sense of failure.
According to Rachel Fry, a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Alabama, who often works with lawyers, “Lawyers tend to score higher in pessimistic thinking, which often results in higher success rates and becoming a better lawyer. However, this type of thinking is also highly correlated with depression.” What makes you a better lawyer can also predispose you to depression.
Additionally, lawyers are expected to work—and be successful—in adversarial situations. They have unpredictable schedules, and they often lack tools to deal with stress. All of this predisposes them to chronic stress and/or depression. Lawyers are also expected to be the ultimate problem-solver. Fry says she often hears lawyers say that the expectation is that they are “a superhero” with no room for error or humanness. Furthermore, the mental health stigma often discourages identification, discussions and access to care. Chronic stress and depression often trigger unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse and personal problems, which can sometimes result in suicide or suicidal ideations.
WHAT ARE SOME WARNING SIGNS?
According to Fry, the warning signs of suicide aren’t always clear. Some individuals outwardly share their suicidal thoughts or plans, while others might keep their intentions secret. The main thing to look for is changes in patterns—someone acting differently, even if it feels insignificant. Changes in patterns can include excessive sadness or moodiness; expressing helplessness or feeling defeated—that their circumstances can’t improve in the future.
Examples could include someone losing their sense of humor, someone continuing to be fully engaged but becoming more agitated and/or drinking more. While some of these signs mirror depressive symptoms, it is sometimes difficult to determine when the line shifts from depression to suicidal thinking, especially if someone is not seeing a professional.
Some obvious signs include someone talking about suicide, death or dying; seeking
access to firearms or pills; giving away important possessions; experiencing relief or sudden improvement in symptoms and telling people goodbye for seemingly no reason. The person may also exhibit sudden calmness after making a decision to end his or her life.
Some more subtle signs can include withdrawing from family and friends, experiencing mood swings, feeling hopeless or trapped, increased substance use and/or experiencing sleep changes.
Read more: Tools help lawyers and legal employers deal with substance-abuse disorders
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of
The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco.