Battling Suicides and Depression: How Lawyers Can Help
by Brian A. Farlow
Usually kept in the shadows, recent events and the corresponding response have helped focus on a disturbing threat facing lawyers: depression and suicide.
The Texas Lawyer Assistance Program (TLAP) notes that suicide is the third leading cause of death among lawyers and that the rate of death by suicide for lawyers is two to six times that of the general population. Other studies found that, among professions, (a) lawyers suffer the highest incidence of depression; (b) lawyers have the highest suicide rate (overtaking dentists in 1996); and (c) approximately 15-20 percent of all U.S. lawyers suffer from alcohol/substance abuse. A study by Campbell University found that 11 percent of attorneys in North Carolina had contemplated suicide in the last month and 26 percent of respondents exhibited symptoms of clinical depression.
Only one other profession is similarly threatened by depression and suicide: the U.S. military. In 2012, 349 members of the U.S. military took their own lives. The Army alone lost 182 soldiers to suicide—actually exceeding the 176 Army soldiers killed in Afghanistan in 2012. Importantly, more than a third of the military personnel who committed suicide were never deployed—suggesting the cause may likely go beyond deployments and the stress of combat.
By any measure, these are grim statistics. To me, a lawyer with over 15 years of practice and a U.S. Army officer who has served multiple deployments, they are alarming. The U.S. military is actively combating this “internal enemy” that continues to claim lives of our soldiers. As lawyers we can and must do more to recognize lawyers in need, and to reduce suicides in our profession.
Having worked in both environments, I believe there is much to learn from the U.S. military’s experience in battling suicide. Like soldiers, lawyers often view themselves as combatants that “go to battle” against an adversary (sometimes “in the trenches”) on behalf of their clients. Soldiers are often worried that “taking a knee” or seeking help violates the Warrior Ethos they were trained to uphold. Similarly, lawyers are trained to fight through difficult assignments and regularly manage an astronomical work load. Among legal professionals, seeking help has been described as a “career killer”—signaling to peers and clients alike that the attorney cannot be trusted or may “crack” under pressure. Often, when an attorney falls to depression or suicide, others think the failure was evidence that the attorney simply “could not handle the stress.” My experience has taught me that my two professions are strikingly similar.
The Army’s current suicide prevention video, Shoulder to Shoulder, stresses a soldier’s obligation to take care of his or her “battle buddy.” Soldiers readily understand the concept of being responsible to the soldiers on one’s left or right in a combat or training exercise—and the Army is seeking to refocus this understanding to all soldiers in crisis, whether on the battlefield or elsewhere. The video also emphasizes that it is perfectly acceptable to “take a knee” when necessary. This point is made to combat the fear soldiers have in seeking help even if they recognize they are in crisis. Soldiers would not think twice about running to their buddy’s aid—even if such effort exposed the soldier to mortal danger. The Army demands all soldiers to be willing to take action to potentially save their battle buddy’s life when a soldier is contemplating suicide.
Obviously the bar cannot impose such a demand. But we can adjust our moral compass to make sure we take care of our brothers and sisters in crisis. The card distributed by the TLAP (containing information on readily available resources to assist lawyers in crisis) advises us to “consider the totality of the situation and trust [our] intuition.” It also recommends us to “research” the facts—including asking the other lawyer “[A]re you thinking of hurting yourself?” In 2008, the Army produced the ACE program—Ask, Care, Escort—by distributing playing-card sized suicide intervention cards. The first step —is to have the courage to directly ask the question: “[A]re you thinking of hurting yourself?” As revealed in Shoulder to Shoulder, just asking that simple, profound question can set in motion a chain of events that actually prevents the death of a battle buddy. While I do not understand why or how asking that question seems to often lead to turning things around—the survivors in Shoulder to Shoulder make it very clear that it is often a successful first step. Lawyers must not be afraid to ask the same question of their battle buddies, their fellow lawyers.
Brian A. Farlowis a Member of Elrod, PLLC. He is also a Major in the U.S. Army Reserves and active with the Dallas Bar Association’s Peer Assistance Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.