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Depression and Suicide: One Bar’s Story

In the years between 1984 and 1993, the Mecklenburg County Bar Association in Charlotte, NC lost eight members to suicide. Put in the context of my arrival as the bar’s first executive director in 1984, this translates to eight suicides 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.

These are disturbing statistics. They have created a stir among bar associations and Lawyer Assistance Programs throughout the United States. We believe they may be among the highest incidents of suicide within such a time frame of any bar association in the country.

Suicide is a subject that most of us would rather not address. But for those who worked with and were close to the bar members who took their lives, it became a poignant reality. We address the issue of suicide because of that reality. In discussing it, learning more about it and becoming more aware of the warning signs, we hope we may be able to provide support to our members and prevent future deaths.

Recently our bar association’s Lawyers Support Committee asked me to do some research into these deaths. It seemed important for the bar to focus on the deaths and attempt to understand some of the underlying causes. During my research, I talked with members of our bar who had been friends with the lawyers who died. They willingly shared their thoughts and feelings with me. While these conversations were disturbing for many of them, I sensed their need to talk out the experience with someone. One lawyer I spoke with shared the following note that was written by his friend and law partner and left for his wife [the note is authentic, the names have been changed]:

Dear Patty,

A letter like this is the hardest thing anyone can ever write. I am so sorry for all the pain I have caused you in our marriage. I don’t know that I can explain what I have done: the simple explanation (and there is no simple explanation, really) is that I am so tired and I don’t see any way out of the box I am in. Please understand that you are not to blame. I am, and I know that what I am doing is selfish. But it is a reasoned decision and one I must carry out.

I love you, John

This suicide note was written before John dialed “911” and asked the police to come to his house and find him before his wife came home. His body was discovered in the backyard with a shotgun wound to the head. The incident is typical of a substance abuse-related death. The young man was a meticulous lawyer, hard on himself, a perfectionist by nature. He gave great attention to detail. He was likable and seemed light-hearted. He was a good lawyer, a good man.

He was also a good actor. Underneath the veneer, John was an alcoholic who had experienced several alcoholic related accidents. His increased alcohol use was in direct proportion with the stress he faced at work and home. His friends recall retrospectively the many occasions when he abused alcohol at social gatherings. He began to miss work on Monday mornings, isolating himself from others and often drinking when alone. Gradually, he began to pull away from others, including his spouse, family and friends. John was, as stated in his note, “tired.” He had lost all hope. And, as he wrote in his own words, he simply could not get out of the “box.”

In the late 80s and early 90s, bar organizations started to look inward, examining program resources and introducing new initiatives to improve poor law firm management and other sources of professional and personal dysfunction among lawyers. Law firms began to urge their lawyers to spend more time with their families and engage in activities that helped create a sense of balance in their lives. The time seemed right for our own bar’s leadership to launch its own support program for lawyers practicing in our community. Our members agreed there was a need to address many of these problems facing their colleagues.

In 1987, the year John died, the Mecklenburg County Bar Association established a Lawyer Support Committee, one of the first local bar initiatives in the country. While our unified North Carolina State Bar had established the PALS (Positive Action for Lawyers) program in 1979, which provides confidential assistance to lawyers who suffer from chemical addiction, there was no program in place to assist practitioners who suffer from problems such as depression or career and personal dissatisfaction.

While chemical dependency underlies a number of problems afflicting lawyers, we felt we needed to focus on a growing subset of problems arising from depression. For the busy lawyer, it may mean that the very ordinary conditions of living, raising children, marital relations, family illness and death, long hours of continuous work can lead to a state of chronic depression. And untreated depression may cause a lawyer to neglect personal needs and client affairs. It was under these conditions that the program was launched as a safety net for our members.

The purpose of the Lawyers Support Committee is to provide a confidential resource to bar members who need support due to personal, job or health-related problems. If the issue is related to chemical dependency, lawyers are encouraged to seek assistance from PALS. Other matters, such as depression, are referred to committee members who serve as trained peer support volunteers. The program, similar to a corporate Employee Assistance Program (EAP), offers immediate help to the individual seeking assistance.

The contacts are confidential; no records or notes of engagements are made. But unlike the traditional EAP, this program is not a faceless voice over the telephone. The lawyer-to-lawyer contact invokes a sense of caring, and promotes an element of trust which is critical to the success of the program. Trained volunteers provide resource information and appropriate referrals, if necessary.

The Lawyer Support Committee is assisted by two psychologists and one psychiatrist who are volunteer therapists. They attend monthly meetings and provide support, information and training to committee members. Our bar foundation provides funding to assist members who need professional services, but cannot afford to pay for a clinical assessment.

The committee also sponsors CLE programs, special educational events, support groups and stress management courses in cooperation with a local hospital. Its members, including the clinical advisors, routinely contribute articles to the bar’s newsletter and provide speakers for section, legal auxiliary and other bar meetings. The committee is also exploring other avenues of assistance, such as helping lawyers who have not filed income tax returns.

Over the years, committee volunteers have unselfishly provided their time, energy and caring concern to lawyers. Their names and telephone numbers are listed each month in the newsletter. Individuals often call a volunteer directly; other times requests come through my office or are made directly to the committee chair.

In a statewide quality-of-life survey conducted by our voluntary North Carolina Bar Association in 1991, 54 percent of the lawyer respondents agreed that bar-related organizations should sponsor programs to help lawyers balance their personal and professional lives. We encourage other local bars to establish confidential support programs for their members as well. The work of our volunteers has prevented additional casualties in the lives of our members.

The author is the executive directory of the Mecklenburg County Bar Association in Charlotte, NC. She was instrumental in developing the bar’s Lawyer Support Committee. She has an bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in counseling.

– by Mary H. Howerton

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