By Patrick Thornton
Dolan Media Newswires
Attorney ranks fourth on the list of professions with the highest rate of suicides, according to data released earlier this year.
The same data also found lawyers are 3.5 times more likely to suffer from depression compared to non-lawyers.
The reasons cited for the high rate of depression and suicides are many. Some argue the profession attracts ambitious, competitive and perfectionist people who are predisposed to the trappings of a high-stress lifestyle. Others posit the realities of the profession, especially in the years after the global financial collapse, turn too many happy and well-adjusted people to depression, substance abuse and suicide.
Health professionals within the legal industry say there are good examples of organizations working to address the problems of suicide and depression in the law, such as The Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program, a member service of the State Bar of Wisconsin that provides confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students and their families.
But until depression ranks right alongside issues such as cost pressure and technology as a paramount challenge facing the future of the profession, the problems will continue, according to experts such as Patrick Krill, director of the legal professionals program at Hazelden, a substance abuse treatment center based in Center City, Minn.
Krill said about 70 percent of the legal professionals who have received treatment at Hazelden since 2011 had an underlying mental health disorder, such as depression, in addition to drug or alcohol addiction. The problem has spiked in the past five to six years as firms laid off lawyers in the recession and law graduates had a harder time finding jobs after graduating.
Added financial stress contributes to mental health, depression and substance abuse, and there is an indisputable link between untreated depression and suicide, Krill said. The first step to combat the issue is to change the perception of mental health in the profession, he said.
“The problem is there is a perception of weakness, that if you are depressed there is something wrong with you,” he said. “That goes all the way back to law school. There is a premium placed on exploiting weakness in the adversarial system. Generally speaking, one of the main reasons that people are reluctant to get help is they are concerned with what will happen to their reputation if they ask.”
To accomplish that will take more leadership, — both from bar groups, legal organizations and lawyers in the profession, he said.
Krill said there are about eight states that require some kind of mental health component as part of their annual continuing legal education requirements. That is a good start, but it’s not enough. There needs to be a connected effort to address the problem before it will improve.
“There is a leadership vacuum on this issue,” he said. “Some states are trying to do more through their bar associations or lawyer assistance programs, and the ABA has done the best it can with the resources it has. But there still isn’t the commitment there needs to be financially and just getting people to talk about what can be an uncomfortable topic.”
He says that leadership needs to come from both bar groups and organizations, but also from lawyers and law firms.
Outreach to law schools
One place to start talking about the grim connection between the law and depression is at the point where people enter the profession.
The Dave Nee Foundation, a group working to fight suicide and depression among law students, visits law schools to highlight the treatment options available.
Nee was a third-year law student at Fordham University School of Law when he committed suicide in 2005. The foundation that bears his name set the goal of visiting every law school in the country and organizing panel discussion and education centered around depression and the resources available to treat it.
According to the group’s statistics, the percentage of students who report feeling depressed nationally grows every year of law school from 27 percent after the first semester to 40 percent at graduation.
Joan Bibelhausen, executive director of Minnesota’s Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, said that talking to law students honestly about the professional realities is one way to combat the problem and the prejudices.
No plan is foolproof, she said, but if people learn to recognize the warning signs and know where to go for help, there is a better chance to get help before it’s too late.
“This can be an isolating profession and to get people to call if they are concerned about their law partners, opposing counsel or even the judge can be so important,” Bibelhausen said. “You may not know what to say, but there are people available who do.”