Losing Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade to suicide in the same week reminds us that something’s going on—and we’d best pay attention.
Suicide in the United States has been on the rise, going up 25 percent since 1999. I read that about 45,000 people commit suicide every year. What’s going on and why should we lawyers care?
A lot of smart folks are trying to figure out why suicide is on the increase. Some suggest that a significant cohort of suicides involve middle-aged and older white men who have been rendered obsolete by shifts in global business, technology and finance which have driven many traditionally secure, if not high-paying, jobs offshore. If anyone doubts that there’s a huge group of disaffected blue-collar workers, one only has to look at the rising tide of angry populism which, in large part, drove the last presidential election. And it isn’t just the factory guys. I just read about a suicide epidemic among dairy farmers in New York and Wisconsin.
Suicides disproportionately affect the 60-69 age cohort. Public health folks point out that those are the years when the perfect storm of aging body, slowing mind, financial pressure attendant on retirement and other mental and physical health issues reach crisis levels for many. Throw in the opioid problem, and we have a large portion of the community under lots of pressure.
Yet neither Spade nor Bourdain fit that pattern. Both were at the top of their game, successful beyond most measures and, to the outside observer, folks with everything to live for. Life insurance policies used to have an exclusion for suicide “sane or insane.” That language reflected the reality that for some, ending life was a nonunreasonable response to crushing financial problems or incurable physical illness while for others it was the result of internal pain that no one could see but which was just as debilitating. My guess is that these same factors are at play with the present epidemic. Undiagnosed and treated depression may be more prevalent than we ever understood.
So what’s the connection with the bar? Well, our demographics skew heavily toward the highest at-risk group. In some states, the 60-69 group is as large as most of the rest of those practicing. Our numbers aren’t that bad, but still skew heavily toward baby boomers.
A 2016 report of the ABA and Hazelden Institute revealed 19 percent of lawyers responding reporting mild or higher levels of anxiety, 20.6 percent with problem drinking, 28 percent with mild or worse depression and 11.5 percent reporting suicidal thoughts. The Dave Nee Foundation reports that lawyers are the most frequently depressed occupational group in the U.S., lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers, depression and anxiety is cited by 26 percent of all lawyers who seek counseling, 15 percent of people with clinical depression commit suicide and lawyers rank fifth in incidence of suicide by occupation.
Two of my favorite people, Beth Griffin from the Lawyers’ Assistance Program and Karen DeMeola, president of the Connecticut Bar Association, just formed a committee on lawyer wellness. We’ve met once so far. Everyone agrees on the problem. Solutions are harder and are going to take a long time.
Beth shared a powerful video put together by the Texas Bar which involved practitioners describing their personal struggles with depression and mental illness. Due to the stigmatizing nature of mental illness, many never admit to anyone that they’re suffering and many others never seek help. Mental health issues are no different than other forms of illness; they don’t occur as a result of weakness or moral failings. Rather, they are the result of chemical or physical changes to parts of our bodies. You can no more cure yourself of mental illness by wishing it away than you can cancer.
The idea behind the Texas program is that if recognized and successful lawyers step up and frankly share their struggles without fear of stigma, others might not feel so alone and may reach out and seek help. Problems can be perhaps, if not avoided, at least limited.
Helping us get well is not really preventative though. One Texas lawyer contrasted law with medicine by noting that while everyone in an operating room is focused on the same goals, half the people in a courtroom are trying their best to make the other half fail. Yes, out of the tension between thesis and antithesis, the truth will appear, but the process can chew up the participants. Efforts at collaborative problem solving remain small and a minority approach. Changing how law is practiced will take generations. In the meantime, we need to be aware that the quiet ones, or the ones who seem most successful, might be as at risk as any of us.
Former Connecticut Chief Disciplinary Counsel Mark Dubois is with Geraghty & Bonnano in New London.