Lawyer Suicide Awareness and Prevention
Updated: Feb 2
By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
"Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start now and make a brand new ending." —Carl Bard
Because September is National Suicide Prevention month, this column is devoted to sharing information on this difficult topic. Although our message is by and large directed to the legal community, we hope that it raises awareness among non-lawyers as well. After all, the devastation of suicide can strike any sector of society.
We were particularly motivated to explore this subject matter because each of us is a survivor of the suicide of a family member. Our purpose is to encourage legal professionals to begin or to continue engaging in transparent conversations about all aspects of mental health, including suicide.
My father, an active alcoholic, took his own life during my senior year in high school. Not only did I lose my dad, but the grief was compounded because it was suicide. The question lingered “What could I have done to save him?”
Although I could write volumes about the adverse effect this had on my emotional landscape over the past 50 years, I will spare the reader these details—for now. Suffice it to say, I felt personally responsible for his death and it took many years of therapy to even begin recovery from the trauma.
At the age of 11, I lost a beloved aunt to suicide; she was 43-years-old. Devastatingly, I would only learn that my aunt had taken her own life many years later in casual conversation. I was shocked and then felt angry, distressed, and lonely. Why had no one told me the truth? Why was my aunt hardly ever talked about?
This painful experience solidified in me the importance of actively combatting the “taboo” of talking about suicide and loved ones who end their own lives. Treating the difficult reality of suicide like a shameful secret unduly tarnishes our loved ones’ memories and makes it more difficult for survivors to move forward in a healthy way.
Lawyers and Suicide
The ALM 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey collected responses from more than 3,200 lawyers and legal staff, including data on suicidal ideations. Released in the spring of 2021, the report revealed that 19.4 percent of White lawyers have contemplated suicide compared with 23 percent of Hispanic and Latino attorneys and 31 percent of Black lawyers. Unfortunately, the idea of killing oneself can quickly progress to the act of suicide. Our hearts were broken in January 2021 by reports that 4 Kentucky lawyers committed suicide within a 3-week period.
These tragedies are not isolated incidents, and we are heartened that bar associations and lawyer assistance programs have a variety of ongoing initiatives designed to raise awareness about mental health issues running rampant within the legal profession. As an example, we draw your attention to the poignant film Just Ask: How We Must Stop Minding Our Own Business in the Legal World, published by Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania and the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program.
As discussed in previous columns, the landmark 2016 study by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation affirmed that attorneys experience a disproportionately high rate of mental health concerns and substance use. Because there is a direct correlation between mental health challenges and suicide, it is not a surprise that a high percentage of attorneys have considered ending their own lives.
Warning Signs of Suicide
Given the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic—which is worsening attorney mental health concerns like depression and anxiety—it is essential to raise our awareness and actively check in with our colleagues and employees.
Noticing common warning signs can help determine if someone you know is at high risk of suicide and may need immediate intervention and support. Pay particular attention if any of the following behaviors are new, have increased, or seem tied to a painful loss, or change in the person’s life:
withdrawal or isolation;
deterioration in functioning;
sleeping too little or too much;
increased alcohol or substance use;
loss of enjoyment or sense of humor;
mood swings, including rage, anxiety, or agitation; and
reckless, impulsive, or high-risk behavior.
Understand that someone may not be in a place to explicitly acknowledge their suffering or ask for help, but instead may “cry for help” in subtle ways. Be observant and reflective of others’ actions. Pay close attention if someone expresses feeling any of the following:
in unbearable pain;
being a burden; or
having no reason to live.
If someone you know exhibits any of the above warning signs, they could be at high risk of taking their own life and in need of professional assistance.
Tips for Helping a Colleague or Loved One
What should you do if you suspect someone you know is at risk of committing suicide? First, trust your intuition. Chances are if you feel like something is “off,” then something is wrong. Even if someone isn't actively having suicidal thoughts or ideations, they may be struggling with other mental health concerns that could progress to such a point if they don’t get professional help.
Just knowing others care can be a positive catalyst when a person is suffering from depression and/or suicidal thoughts. If you are in a position to personally reach out to someone in distress, ask them directly and non-judgmentally about your concerns: “Is everything ok? Do you need help? Have you considered hurting yourself? Have you contemplated suicide?”
Use words that feel authentic to you and give a pointed reason why you are asking. Be aware that such conversations may prompt someone to be evasive, defensive and even lash out at you. Remain calm and understand that this process may require multiple conversations over time. Be patient, persistent, and ready to listen without judgment.
Simply asking someone if they are okay could be the catalyst for them to get help when they otherwise would not seek support on their own. If a person confides in you and wants to talk, just hold space and listen. Don’t try to “fix” it; simply be present. Ultimately, encourage them to seek additional help and support.
If you believe suicide may be imminent, seek professional help immediately. Call a suicide hotline (see our list of resources at the end of the article). If that person has a therapist, call them. If not, you may want to consider taking them to the emergency room.
After someone receives professional help for mental health concerns like suicidal ideations, it is critical to support their ongoing recovery. Family, friends, colleagues, and employers can alleviate further stress by adjusting expectations. Understand that recovering from severe mental illness and/or substance use is not a quick, easy, or linear process. Every person’s recovery is unique and there is no definitive timeline. Do not push or criticize if it seems like they are not making enough progress in your eyes. Always remember that they are doing the best that they can.
Recognize that recovery takes a significant amount of time and effort to achieve and maintain. Temper your expectations and be understanding that it will likely take someone time to ramp back up at work. Necessary adjustments may need to be made to support their long-term success, such as working less hours, flexible scheduling, or working remotely. Above all, be patient, compassionate, and offer support without judgment.
Coping with Suicidal Thoughts
We have one piece of advice for anyone who is dealing with suicidal thoughts: Reach out RIGHT NOW! Do not delay. Contact your therapist. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text 741741 or visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org) for free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even confiding in a friend or family member is a strong step forward. Taking just one action, making one simple phone call during a moment of clarity can put you on a path to happiness and hope.
In 2009, Cindy had fallen into an emotional abyss, was drinking heavily and strongly considered suicide. “I will never forget the moment in which I said a strong yes to life and checked myself into a 30-day inpatient rehab program. Today, I lead an extraordinarily happy and productive life—and keep my emotions in balance by taking care of myself first.”
Prioritizing Our Well-Being
You can’t pour from an empty cup. As we continue to deal with the additional stressors of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to prioritize our mental and physical well-being. Self care is not a luxury—it is a necessity!
Commit to taking time to relax and recharge each and every day. Find an activity and schedule that works for you personally whether it’s listening to an audiobook or favorite podcast to start your morning, going for a midday walk, or taking a hot bath after your work day. Tending to our fundamental needs—including sleep, exercise, and healthy eating—can improve our quality of life and protect against burnout.
Join a Community
Being a member of a supportive community is a proven means to protect our overall health, especially during stressful and traumatic times. According to leading trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, “Study after study shows that having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized.”
The co-authors can personally attest to the power of community to combat stress and promote well-being. In June 2020, we launched a virtual meditation community to help legal practitioners cope with the stresses of pandemic times. The community met three times a week for six months and became a mainstay to its members (and founders!) during an unprecedented period of social isolation and uncertainty.
We’d like to personally invite you to our ongoing Online Meditation Community, where we meet briefly the first Wednesday of each month to learn and practice a mindfulness meditation technique together. It’s free and all experience levels are welcome!
Mindfulness meditation is neuroprotective, meaning it can protect and prevent the ill effects of chronic stress from developing in the first instance. Additionally, the effects of meditation are cumulative, so the more you do it, the more you can maximize its benefits. If you are interested in exploring additional ways to integrate mindfulness into your everyday life and practice, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll forward you a copy of our Mindfulness Resources Guide for legal professionals.
If you are struggling to cope with a distressing situation, seek help before things are in crisis. Admitting that you need support is a sign of strength, not weakness. If anything we have discussed resonates or you are feeling depressed or anxious, please consider engaging with a professional counselor. A therapist can serve as an objective, third-party to express your feelings to and provide additional tools to help manage stress and mental health concerns.
Finding a therapist can feel daunting, but there is help available. Explore local resources like your state’s Lawyers Assistance Program. Take advantage of search engines such as Goodtherapy.org and Psychology Today to research therapists in your area. Depending on your employer, you may also have access to an Employee Assistance Program that provides free counseling sessions.
Remember that you are never alone and there is support available. Please reach out if you are struggling and don’t know where to turn. We are always here as a resource. However, it’s up to you to reach out, seek support, and take advantage of all available tools.
In next month’s column, we will explore how to build a trauma-informed law practice.
© 2021. Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, Sept. 2021 Issue (Vol. 11, No. 2) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.