By Loren M. Brown
World Suicide Prevention Day is observed every September 10 to promote global action to prevent suicide. Various events and activities are held to raise awareness that suicide—a major cause of premature death—is preventable.
Suicide and Lawyers
Lawyers are not immune to suicide. In fact, numerous recent studies about suicide make clear that lawyers experience depression and substance abuse at higher rates than the general population. As a result, lawyers are at a greater risk for suicide.
Suicide is a very difficult subject to talk about. This is even more the case in a profession where we are constantly on guard and attempting to maintain an air of strength with our clients, with opposing counsel, within our firms, and within the profession. However, now is the time to speak about this issue—and speak loudly. The fact that attorneys have one of the highest suicide rates among professionals can no longer be ignored.
Suicide touches us all, from line deputy district attorneys and public defenders to 17th Street corporate transactions attorneys to solo and small firm practitioners throughout the state. I have felt the impact of suicide in both my personal and professional life. As a child, I grew up with stories of relatives who found themselves in dark places they were unable to escape. In my practice, I have suffered the loss of clients, opposing counsel, and friends at their own hands.
Through all of these experiences, the question that continues to ring out is, “Why?”
Why would someone do this?
Why does it keep happening?
Why have we not done more to combat this within our profession?
There is no good reason to continue to ask this last question, but there is every reason to address it head-on now. It is time for us to take immediate steps toward preventing suicide from occurring within the profession.
Remove the Stigma
One of the first steps to addressing the problem is removing the stigma of suicide. This is a matter of perspective that can easily be overcome.
Following 9/11, there were many unnecessary funerals, brought on by the unnecessary tragedy. I was fortunate not to lose anyone close to me on that fateful Tuesday fourteen years ago. I suppose that is one of the benefits of being landlocked in Colorado and never venturing too far from home. Nonetheless, the events of that day shook me to the core. One horrific aspect of that tragedy that has continued to plague me was the images of people high up in the towers who were forced to step out into nothingness toward a certain fate, as opposed to waiting for a more horrible and fiery death. Searching for meaning in the face of those deaths brought no answers.
Months later, I heard (I think on NPR) the story of a eulogy for a person who had committed suicide, unconnected to 9/11. The eulogist discussed the stigma attached to suicide. He discussed the disbelief, shock, and anger of the family and friends left behind, the impolite rumors and whispers that follow the death, and the speculation and judgment about the reasons for the act.
He discussed the spiritual conflict felt by many survivors trying to mediate the feelings of loss of their loved one and bear the pain of a belief that the person must now suffer a form of eternal damnation as a result of the act. The eulogy compared death by suicide with death suffered by victims of 9/11—the former victim chose a known fate and the latter waited and suffered an unknown one. The eulogist went on to say that the person who had taken his own life was really no different from those who chose to jump out of the building rather than remain inside and burn. On 9/11, each person was in a horrified and desperate state, with the fire licking at their heels. Instead of staying to face the fire, they chose temporary freedom by stepping out into the air; yet, there is no stigma attached to those who jumped from the towers.
The eulogist concluded by saying that the death by suicide was no different. The person who had died was in the throes of intense personal struggles he felt he was unable to successfully battle, which forced him to the brink. The eulogist ended by stating, “God help me that I could not see the flames.”
There are fires licking at the heels of many of our colleagues. As members of the profession, it is our job to try harder to see the flames and to do all we can to help put them out. If we are to effectively fight and prevent suicide, we must adopt the perspective expressed in the eulogy above. It is often said that depression is not a sign of being weak, but a sign of having been strong for too long. We must take a stand together and commit ourselves to helping others be strong when they can no longer be strong on their own. We cannot let others be isolated. We need to be a resource to either provide them guidance or get them the help they need.
Know the Warning Signs
The warning signs for suicide range from seemingly subtle and common to open and obvious. It is important to know what they are. Here are many warning signs:
· feeling hopeless
- experiencing dramatic mood changes
- feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge
- acting reckless or engaging in risky activities—seemingly without thinking
- feeling trapped—like there’s no way out
- withdrawing from friends, family, and society
- feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
- increasing alcohol or drug use
- seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose in life
- threatening to hurt or kill oneself or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself
- looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means.
We should all be mindful of these warning signs, both in ourselves and in our colleagues.
Prevention strategies do exist for suicide. The most effective strategy is to identify the warning signs of suicide and to take the signs seriously. Once these warning signs are identified, an individual struggling with depression and contemplating suicide should be encouraged to receive professional help. We also have to be willing to talk about suicide. We must increase professional and public awareness through dialogue and education to eliminate the stigma associated with suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Helpline (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org) recommends the following when someone is threatening suicide:
- Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
- Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
- Be nonjudgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
- Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
- Don’t dare the person to do it.
- Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
- Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
- Offer hope that alternatives are available, but do not offer glib reassurance.
- Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
- Get help from individuals or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.
If you believe a colleague may be at risk for suicide, encourage him or her to seek help. If you are facing these struggles yourself, it is important to know that you are not alone. There are people and resources available to help you during these difficult times.
A very good resource for lawyers is the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP). One of the most important aspects of COLAP is confidentiality. COLAP was established by Colorado Supreme Court Rule 254. Pursuant to Rule 254(6)(a), information and actions taken by COLAP are privileged and held in strictest confidence and will not be disclosed or required to be disclosed to any person or entity outside COLAP, unless disclosure is authorized by the member. COLAP will not release any information without a signed release. Therefore, when a person contacts COLAP (whether a person is calling for himself or herself or to express concern about a colleague), the interaction will remain confidential.
COLAP provides assistance for any career challenge that interferes with the ability to be a productive member of the legal community, including but not limited to: practice management, work/life integration, stress/anger management, anxiety, depression, substance use, and relationship issues. COLAP provides referrals for a variety of personal and professional issues, assistance with interventions, voluntary monitoring programs, supportive relationships with peer volunteers, and educational programs. More information on COLAP can be found at www.coloradolap.org.
Take a Minute to Help Others and Yourself
If you are an attorney reading this article and feel as though you need support regaining strength, I encourage you to reach out to a friend or to COLAP. If you are an attorney and begin to see the signs of someone facing or nearing this struggle, take the time to reach out to that person.
Take a minute to help yourself or someone else. Take a minute to ask for help. Take a minute to connect with an old friend. Take a minute to ask how others are doing. Take a minute to listen (and really care) about the response. It may take only a minute to save a life.
Previously published in The Colorado Lawyer.