Lawyer Suicide and Resources for Managing Stress

Don Carroll

In the years between 1984 and 1993, The Mecklenburg Bar lost eight members to suicide in nine years. Seven men and one woman took their lives in that span of time.  They included sole practitioners, large-firm lawyers and those who practiced in small firms.  The mean age was 42 years.  Five took their lives at home, two in motel rooms, and one killed himself in the conference room adjacent to his office.  At least half of the deaths resulted from alcohol and drug abuse.  Depression and various mood disorders were underlying causes in the rest.  The Mecklenburg Bar under the leadership of then President, Bob Sink, and Bar Director, Mary Howerton, responded to this rash of suicides by setting up the Mecklenburg Bar Lawyer Support Committee.  This Committee has worked very effectively over the years to support individual lawyers in need and to promote educational programs about health, wellness, and recovery. 

In 1997, the Canadian Bar in Nova Scotia experienced a similar series of lawyer suicides.  In undertaking to respond to this distress in the legal community, the Legal Profession Assistance Conference (LPAC) of the Canadian Bar Association undertook to research the scope of the problem.  The Canadian Bar Insurance Association offered its help in providing life insurance mortality data.  While the Canadian Bar Insurance Association's individual data was all kept confidential, LPAC was permitted to analyze the insurance data in Nova Scotia and other Canadian provinces.  The result of this was LPAC's 1997 Lawyer Suicide Study.  This was the first reported investigation of lawyer suicide in Canada and the United States. 

As a part of the analysis of the insurance data, the researchers determined that suicide was the third leading cause of death of lawyers after cancer and cardiac conditions.  Suicide accounted for 10.8% of all insured lawyer deaths.  

In the general population in Canada and the United States, the rate of suicide is in the range of ten to fourteen suicide deaths per 100,000.  The data from the insurance records revealed a suicide rate of 69.3 suicide deaths per 100,000.  Thus, the death rate by suicide among lawyers is six times the suicide rate of the general population.  This is a starling statistic.

The insurance company's data did not include lawyers over 65 who were excluded from the term life risk pool; however, many other studies, including one by the United States' Surgeon General, indicate that those individuals most at risk are older males, age 48 to 80.  The Canadian Study also identified lawyers most at risk as males over 48.

The demographics of the incidents of suicide in the United States spell one word, isolation.  Eighty per cent of suicides are men.  Whites are prone to suicide twice as often as blacks or Hispanics (which have traditionally had more extended family support).  While women are less likely to commit suicide than men, divorced women (like men) have high rates at all ages, but unlike men, where the risk of suicide rises with age - the suicide rate in women remains steady with age.  The suicide rate correlates with the proportion of households owning firearms - highest in Nevada and Montana, lowest in New York and New Jersey.

There are major suicide prevention resources in place.  Two of the best are, "The Surgeon General's Call To Action To Prevent Suicide" which can be found at www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/calltoaction/default.htm. and the "National Strategy For Suicide Prevention" found at http://www.mentalhealth.org/suicidepreveion.htm

Part of the Canadian response to the suicide study was to highlight the risk of suicide for lawyers through conferences and written material.  Most Canadian Bars had programs like the Mecklenburg Bar Support Committee, and much of the outreach was to these local Bar support efforts.  In addition however, the Canadian Bar, as a whole, undertook to develop educational programs for support committees and lawyers throughout Canada that could be individually accessed through the Internet.  In the past these programs have been available on line for purchase.  Recently however, because of funding from the Canadian Bar Association's Law For The Future Fund, these courses can now be read and downloaded without any charge.  Below is a listing of the twenty-five courses offered in the Health, Wellness and Recovery Education Series.  These may be accessed by going to the website http://www.lpac.ca/.  Go to Education Programs, click on the course you want, and then click on preview this course, and you will get free access.  Please download the program that speaks most directly to you - this will help assure the suicide statistics remain just statistics.

  1. Creating Balance in Professional Life
  2. Stress Management
  3. Wellness as a Way of Life
  4. Preventing Burnout for Lawyers & Judges
  5. Women's Health Issues
  6. Healthy Life Styles For Young Lawyers
  7. STEP - An Employment Program for Young Lawyers
  8. A Road Map for Living
  9. Alcoholism and Lawyers
  10. Drugs and Addiction
  11. Depression and Lawyers
  12. Managing Bipolar Illness
  13. Suicide Awareness and Prevention
  14. Heart Attack / Stroke & Recovery
  15. Major Illness & Recovery
  16. Cancer & Recovery
  17. Living With HIV / AIDS
  18. Loss Prevention
  19. Models for Lawyer Assistance Programs
  20. LPAC - A Service of the Canadian Bar Association
  21. LPAC Information Package
  22. Compulsive Gambling
  23. Eating Disorders
  24. Retirement, Health and Practice Issues for Elderly Lawyers
  25. Laughter and Living

 

What To Do If You Are Concerned Another Lawyer May Be Thinking Of Suicide

  • Never be afraid to ask about suicide.
  • Encourage your friend to talk.
  • Avoid giving advice or trying to argue - it discourages opening up.
  • Encourage your friend to reach out, to call his/her personal physician or therapist.
  • Offer hope, care, and understanding.  (You are not alone; the feeling will change.)
  • If the threat of suicidal harm is imminent, call 911 and stay with your friend.
  • See your own counselor - supporting and intervening with a suicidal friend is very stressful.
  • You may always call the Lawyer Assistance Program for assistance.

 

 

Suicide Warning Signs

 

Underlying Factors

Family

mental illness in family

domestic violence

family history of addiction

family history of divorce/separation

suicides in family

 

 

Individual Factors

alcoholism

mental illness

depression

social isolation

problem gambling

physical illness/disability

previous suicide attempts

 

 

 

  

Triggering

Relationship Loss or Threat of Loss

death of loved one

repeated losses

rejection by spouse/lover

conflict with family or friends

 

 

 

Social/Career Losses

loss of case or client

poor job review

disbarment

loss of job

financial loss

 

 

Changes In Affect

depression

sadness hopelessness

irritability

changes in weight

sleep pattern changes

 

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