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As published in The Recorder
Earlier this year, a landmark study published by the American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation confirmed what many within the legal profession have suspected for quite some time. More than 20 percent of licensed, employed attorneys exhibit behavior consistent with alcohol dependence and nearly 30 percent struggle with mental-health problems like depression.
It is not surprising, therefore, that many attorneys have colleagues who currently live with depression or, even worse, someone who has attempted or committed suicide. Among all professionals, lawyers rank among the highest in rates of suicide and depression. And recent studies suggest that depression begins in law school, with rates continuing to increase year over year.
Attorneys and law practices can help change the outlook on mental health within the profession. In order to do so, the profession must first recognize that attorney suicide is a significant and growing problem that merits national recognition and response. Empirical studies, such as those published by the ABA and other professional and health organizations, have begun to call attention to the severity of attorney suicide.
Law firms can consider localized assistance. Many carriers of malpractice policies have employee assistance programs (EAPs) that are designed to provide help or even coverage for treatment or other steps. Some law firms also employ internal programs or resources, or can help provide attorneys with mentors to support them on their roads to recovery.
At the state level, bar associations typically offer free, confidential hotlines to assist legal professionals. Through its Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), the State Bar of California has set up its own hotline (877-LAP-4HELP) for attorneys and law students. The hotline is confidential and is staffed by trained counselors.
Like many other state bar associations' programs, the LAP helps California attorneys by providing assistance in several ways. The attorney can receive a free professional mental-health assessment and speak with a counselor to find out what services are needed. If the attorney wants to satisfy a specific monitoring or verification requirement imposed by an employer, the Office of the Chief Trial Counsel, State Bar Court, Committee of Bar Examiners or another entity, the attorney can participate in monitored LAP. This program offers long-term structure and the support of a professional case manager. It is also available for attorneys seeking help independently who want the additional structure and support this part of the program provides. Third, if the attorney is interested in participating in a weekly group meeting with other lawyers and would like the support of a qualified mental-health professional, the attorney can participate in the Support LAP program. These resources, unique in the legal profession, make a huge difference every day in the lives of California bar members and helps erase the stigma around mental illness and dependency issues.
Finally, attorneys can obtain assistance by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or by chatting online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
While many resources are available, attorney suicides continue. One of the most significant reasons is that those most in need are least likely to seek help—they have given up hope and can only see one way out.
To save them, partners, colleagues, other attorneys, friends and family must help. Help consists of these critical steps: talking about suicide as a risk, identifying solutions for those at risk, and watching for warning signs.
Suicide is not a pleasant topic of discussion. But when no one talks about it, those thinking about suicide do not recognize the warning symptoms or know what resources, solutions and help are available.
On the other hand, open discussion creates opportunities. The opportunities include opening avenues for recognition of the risk, other options for resolution and, most importantly, dialogue. Talking about suicide helps prevent suicide.
To be effective, solutions should be communicated and posted in places where anyone in trouble can find them. It is not enough that the hotline telephone number can be found through an Internet search. Those contemplating suicide rarely take the time to look. To be effective, solutions must come to those in need as opposed to expecting them to find solutions.
The most obvious place is wherever and however the topic of suicide is discussed. Every training, message, meeting, retreat, or communication addressing suicide should include information about where to look for help. The goal is to make solutions readily and easily accessible.
Too often, the warning signs are overlooked by colleagues and co-workers. Although it is difficult to identify with certainty when someone is suicidal, those who commit suicide often bring it up in conversation or display warning signs before attempting.
Sudden life changes can be a precipitating event. These can include the death of a loved one, marital discord, illness, and a significant change in economic circumstance. While traumatic events can be the trigger for some, increasing stress and other factors can lead to hopelessness for others.
Regardless of the cause, suicide victims often display other signs that something terribly wrong is happening. Some of the more common observable signs include preoccupation with death; losing interest in the future or in things to come; making comments reflecting helplessness or worthlessness; suddenly and urgently making end-of-life arrangements or putting things in order; making comments about "seeing no way out" or "having no options"; sudden and unexpected changes in behavior or emotions; and chronic insomnia or difficulty sleeping.
In addition, two other signs are especially important. First, anyone talking about suicide or killing themselves needs help. Second, anyone with worsening substance abuse needs help. Approximately half of all those who commit suicide are legally intoxicated at their death.
If someone exhibits any of these characteristics, the most important step is to take them seriously. Listen to them. Talk with them. Do not argue with them or downplay their feelings. Then, if the situation merits, encourage them to get help. If they do not, tell someone. If the situation involves a client or potential client, Rule 3-100 of the California Rules of Professional Conduct provides that confidential information may be revealed where necessary to prevent death or substantial bodily harm.
The resources are there. And you are one of them. Together, attorneys can help prevent the preventable.
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