The Top Three Factors for Attorney Suicide and What We Can Do to Help

Attorneys are overworked and under constant stress. They defend the rights of the accused, provide legal services to the injured, and help us protect our investments. Despite this, tasteless jokes about dead lawyers abound.

However, that might change, as a report by the CDC proves—once and for all—that attorney deaths are no joking matter. The report shows that the profession of attorney comes with the fifth-highest suicide rate in the U.S.

The trend is obvious and grim when you look at the following string of deaths by suicide among attorneys:

  • Fifteen attorney suicides since 2010 in Kentucky
  • Six attorney suicides in 18 months in South Carolina
  • One suicide a month for an entire year in Oklahoma

And these are just the suicides that have been reported.

Dan Lukasik was an attorney on the brink of adding to these statistics. Battling for years with depression, he was finally able to fight back and regain some semblance of a normal life. Once he did, he dedicated himself to helping other attorneys defeat their depression and the stigma associated with the disease by creating the website, Lawyers With Depression.

"The stigma is huge with mental illness and depression in this country. You're supposed to be a problem solver; you're supposed to be superman or superwoman. You're not supposed to have problems," said Lukasik. "The general public already has a problem with lawyers and when I started talking about this problem they didn't want to hear it. They thought, 'a person who makes a lot of money and has this job should not be having this problem.'"

Depression is All Too Common Among Attorneys

But attorneys are "having this problem." According to the American Psychological Association, attorneys are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-attorneys. And it seems that, for attorneys, the odds of suffering from this debilitating mental illness are stacked against them.

Dr. Andy Benjamin of the University of Washington found that, by the time law students graduated, they were suffering depression at a rate of 40 percent. And while law school is stressful, life after graduation isn't much better. 

It is up to the state bar to make subjective decisions as to whether mental illness or depression, either treated or untreated, are a barrier to a potential attorney's ability to practice law. Because of this, there is pressure on the depressive graduates to hide their illness. According to Lukasik, lawyers fear reporting depression or other mental illnesses because, if they do so, they may not meet "character and fitness" requirements.

Adding insult to injury, the stress shows no signs of slowing after lawyers launch their careers. In fact, it tends to pick up speed.  

Stress: An Occupational Hazard for Attorneys

"There are a lot of high-stress professions," said Yvette Hourigan, head of the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program. "Being a physician has stress. However, when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don't send another physician in to try and kill the patient. You know, they're all on the same team trying to do one job. In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game."

The job of an attorney, particularly a trial attorney, has been described as "multidimensional stress." The stressors attorneys often face include:

  • Long hours at work
  • Isolation
  • Self-generated pressure—a tendency toward perfectionism and a low tolerance for failure
  • High-stakes cases
  • Exposure to dire life situations
  • Dealing with difficult clients
  • Pressure to make large sums of money and "keep up with the Joneses"
  • A "dog eat dog" work environment

Because of this, attorneys’ jobs leave them in a constant state of crisis. This near-constant level of stress can lead to another serious problem among lawyers: substance abuse.

Substance Abuse

In the general public, 1 in 100 people are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Among attorneys, it’s closer to 2 in 100. This means that attorneys are twice as likely as other Americans to have substance dependency issues.

The ties between suicide and excessive alcohol use are clear. According to a study cited in the Oxford Journals of Medicine, it has been shown that "individuals with alcohol dependence have a 60-120 times greater suicide risk than the non-psychiatrically-ill population."

Most at risk are drinking males over the age of 50. This demographic represents an increased risk of completed suicide, as the risk for suicide associated with dependence on alcohol increases with age. This seems to align with the demographics in attorneys who have taken their lives, the vast majority being older males.

What Can Be Done?

It's important to note that no matter an attorney's age, sex or level of success, depression, alcohol use and stress can and do lead to thoughts of suicide. The silver lining to the litany of attorney suicides is that, finally, the issue is being addressed by the legal community.

Eight states—California, Montana, Iowa, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina—have added a mental health component to their license renewal process. In addition, most states now provide confidential mental health services. All of these programs are founded on confidentiality, which is a key component to any program because lawyers want to do all they can to protect their image and their license.

At Foster Web Marketing, attorneys aren't just our clients, they are our friends. We want every attorney who is struggling to get help and stop the cycle of stress and depression well before the situation becomes dire.

To this end, we have created an extensive list of resources for attorneys. Our resource page includes a state-by-state list of mental health resources for attorneys, along with other non-profit outreach programs. Our hope is that, by shedding some light on this often taboo subject, we can help struggling attorneys get the help they need and change their lives. If you need help, please reach out. It's never too late for a second chance.

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