The legal industry has the 11th highest incidence of suicide among professions in the U.S., according to the CDC.
Stories of lawyers taking their lives are unfortunately common, with little indication that they’re slowing down.
As a high-stress occupation, practicing law can attract the type of people who are more at risk for suicide—but there are myriad reasons a lawyer might ultimately take his or her own life. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health in the legal industry has certainly made combatting lawyer suicides an even larger challenge. However, it’s not an impossible problem, as there are proven ways we can work to lower the suicide rate, and it starts with understanding the reasons lawyers are particularly at risk to begin with.
Understand the Risks
First, it’s important to understand just why lawyers have such a high rate of death by suicide. Two facts stand out: Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers, according to the American Psychological Association, and are also significantly more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. That combination of depression and substance abuse is highly correlated with suicide. In addition, lawyers often experience high rates of anxiety and chronic stress yet are generally ill-equipped to handle them. Thanks to a pervasive stigma surrounding mental health in the legal industry, many lawyers tend to be hesitant to seek treatment.
The qualities that predispose a lawyer to success also predispose a lawyer to higher levels of depression: pessimism, perfectionism, a tendency towards workaholism. Add to these traits an adversarial atmosphere, an unpredictable schedule, and an unforgiving professional culture, and it’s a sure recipe for desperation and disaster.
Know the Signs
Not everyone with suicidal thoughts is vocal about them, but some lawyers will talk to friends or family about their thoughts of death or wanting to hurt themselves. Pay attention to noticeable changes in your friends or colleagues, such as suddenly losing their sense of humor, drinking significantly more alcohol, or exhibiting rapid mood swings or erratic behavior. Often (though certainly not always) these symptoms can be sparked by a trauma or crisis, like the death of a loved one, a career failure, or a divorce or breakup.
The American Bar Association maintains a list of warning signs for suicide that’s worth becoming familiar with. The main thing is to look for changes in patterns, even if those changes might seem insignificant at first blush. A depressed lawyer who suddenly becomes happy and peaceful and gives his closest friends gifts may seem like a positive turn, but a major positive mood swing and giving things away often accompanies a decision to end one’s life. Hence, noticing pattern changes is important.
Help When You Can
If you become aware of a lawyer who is exhibiting some of the aforementioned warning signs, you should get involved—this isn’t a time to worry about overstepping your bounds or offending anyone. Reaching out can be uncomfortable, but it can also play a critical role in helping pull someone back from the brink. Do your best to be direct about your concerns, listen to theirs, and don’t promise to keep anything a secret. Then, make sure they get help, whether through their firm, a mental health professional if they’re already working with one, your local LAP, or the National Suicide Prevention Helpline.
Encourage Firms to be Proactive
Sometimes, it feels like working in the legal industry is directly at odds with the kind of healthy lifestyle necessary to keep stress, anxiety, and depression in check. However, firms are now in a position to make wellness a part of overall firm culture; historically, that’s something that’s been stigmatized. Law firms should continue to be encouraged to prioritize the health and wellness of their employees, with the added incentive that this focus will likely benefit them from financial and retainment perspectives down the road. In addition, firms should ensure their employees are aware of available mental health services and benefits, and consider offering suicide awareness training.