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Lawyer Suicide

Society puts the burden of coming to grips with homicide on lawyers and the justice system. It is a lawyer’s job to prosecute the accused, try the case, and defend the accused. Yet, more people in America die of suicide than from homicide. Unlike the elaborate justice system, with its guaranteed right of appeal for the defendant and a public process for reconciling the societal effects of homicide, there is no system in place to prevent, understand, and reconcile suicide.

Of course, this is not just a problem of the legal profession, but statistical data suggests that lawyers are more at risk for suicide than any other profession or vocation. In recent years, one North Carolina district bar experienced eight suicides in nine years. As a profession, we must take suicide as seriously as our profession takes homicide more lives are lost and the cost to the survivors very high. Suicide is a phenomena that tends to perpetuate itself in families. Once a family member commits suicide there is a much greater risk that other family members will follow. The highest rates of suicide are for single or widowed men over 55.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, substance abuse and depression are the two underlying conditions most likely to lead a person to commit suicide. Both of these underlying conditions can either be prevented or mitigated by timely intervention and treatment to prevent a suicide from occurring. We as lawyers need to know how to recognize and get help for the conditions that make lawyer suicide a frequent outcome if the underlying conditions are not treated.

Understanding Depression

Depression is a brain disease. Somehow the process by which normal “feel good” chemicals are generated and interact in the brain becomes impaired for a period of time. The predisposition to clinical depression often runs in families. Whether there is or is not a family history, depression can be triggered by many different kinds of events such as illness, death or separation from a loved one, or an accident. These types of events may trigger deep emotional issues which may lead to depression; however, just simply failing to address underlying emotional issues may also cause depression. Because lawyers are involved in helping others, they often have little awareness of their own needs and emotional issues. Often the depressed lawyer, like the alcoholic, has no awareness that he or she has an illness. Over time, a depressed state of being becomes the norm. The depressed lawyer is unable to face his normal routine tasks at work. The depressed lawyer’s view of the world becomes increasingly narrow, negative, and limited.

Understanding Alcoholism

Addiction to alcohol is a brain disease. Predisposition to alcoholism often runs in families. The continuous use of alcohol by the alcoholic causes the shut down of those parts of the brain that create the normal “feel good” neurotransmitters. While most everyone drinks to experience an elevation in mood, the alcoholic is ingesting alcohol to not feel so bad, to feel normal. The alcoholic’s use of alcohol to create a feeling of normalcy becomes more and more illusive as alcoholism progresses. Alcohol itself is a central nervous system depressant. In addition to the skewed brain chemistry caused by alcoholism, the alcoholic experiences tremendous guilt and remorse as he is no longer able to function normally and as his behavior again and again disappoints himself and others. The normal state for an alcoholic is depression fueled by fear, guilt, and anger. Depression makes suicidal thoughts common. As alcoholism progresses, the alcoholic loses meaningful relations with his family, social relations, and finally his job. By the time the lawyer is down to just a job, there is not much left of value for which to live. Among alcoholic lawyers who commit suicide, a major factor is often public disclosure of their disease, wrongs they committed while intoxicated, and/or disbarment.

Signs of Alcoholism and Depression

Although there are certain specific symptoms for each, many of the outward signs of alcoholism and depression are similar. They include:

  • feeling depressed, sad, or anxious most of the day
  • neglecting one’s family and losing interest in activities once enjoyed
  • losing or gaining weight
  • changes in sleep pattern
  • feeling drained of energy
  • financial difficulties
  • increase in health problems
  • feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • isolation from friends
  • reduced ability or inability to concentrate

Treatment Works

The good news is that treatment is available for both alcoholism and depression. Like all diseases, the longer they go untreated, the greater the likelihood of the development of other concurrent problems and also the greater the likelihood of suicide. Because depression and alcoholism are both chronic, long-term diseases, there is a need for ongoing support that focuses on preventing isolation and increasing: a) physical activity to increase endorphins; b) intellectual activity; c) social activity; and, d) spiritual activity.

– by Don Carroll and Ed Ward

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