The death by suicide of prominent Coral Gables trial attorney Ervin Gonzalez thrust the issue of mental illness into focus for lawyers in South Florida.
A statement from Colson Hicks Eidson law firm partner Dean Colson did not mention suicide but raised the subject of mental illness, saying, “It pains us to know he was suffering so terribly beyond his control.”
Gonzalez died Thursday at his Coral Gables home. He played high-profile roles in the BP oil spill and Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation, consumer class actions and wrongful death cases.
Depression and mental illness in the legal profession are not uncommon, and documented evidence suggests attorneys experience higher rates of suicide and substance abuse than other groups. Yet the stigma associated with mental illness still keeps many from seeking treatment.
This is also true among Hispanic lawyers—and perhaps more so, according Cuban American Bar Association President Javier Lopez.
“It’s devastating. We don’t talk about mental health. It’s this giant unspoken in our community because we’re either scared or embarrassed to do so,” said Lopez, a partner at Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton. “We need to focus on bringing awareness to this issue and just shed some light on this because we’re seeing this happen more and more.”
Lopez recalled the suicide of Coral Gables banker Raul G. Valdes-Fauli last September. Three weeks earlier, Valdes-Fauli had seemed like the happiest guy in the world. “Inside his head was this hurricane that just nobody knew,” he said.
At least two other well-known South Florida lawyers have died by suicide in the last four years.
Lopez noted the Hispanic legal community may be especially vulnerable. “We have this machismo culture where it might be seen as embarrassing or a sign of weakness to reach out,” he said.
He has been talking to the CABA board about finding a way to bring substantive, tangible help to the community and engage in conversations about depression and mental illness. He would like to see a program that offers attorneys the ability to reach out anonymously or discretely so that the myth of it being “embarrassing or unmacho is removed.”
Lawyers in general are three times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers, and they rank fifth in suicide among all professions. Depression and anxiety are cited by 26 percent of all lawyers who seek counseling, according to Matthew Dietz, litigation director of a nonprofit disability rights advocacy center.
But social attitudes prevent many from seeking help.
“The stigma starts from the moment you apply for the Florida Bar, where you have to disclose if you have any mental illness. That dissuades people,” said Dietz, who often gets calls from law students wondering whether they should disclose their condition or get treatment. “People who have anxiety or depression are concerned whether they are even going to be allowed to be in the bar, so it’s easier to not get treatment than it is to worry about whether you’re going to get in.”
Mediator and former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Leesfield said the culture in the legal community is “I don’t have time to be mentally ill, I’m too busy. You can’t even be sick.”
But now “we’re beginning to see cracks in our armor, and it’s shocking, but it’s in some ways not surprising.”
Florida Bar president-elect Michelle Suskauer of Suskauer Feuer in West Palm Beach, who will assume the top post next year, ran on a platform that heavily emphasized mental health issues among lawyers. And Michael Higer, who will be inducted as Florida Bar president later this month, said that before his first meeting in July, he intends to present a proposal to the board of governors outlining how the bar can better address health and wellness issues. The Berger Singerman partner, who was a longtime friend of Gonzalez, said the state’s lawyers need a way to deal with such issues before they become a critical problem.
“We work in a very high-pressure environment, and life is tough, and professions are tough because of the enormous responsibility we take for our clients and the inherent difficulty of what we do as lawyers,” said Ramon Abadin, who knew Gonzalez for 25 years.
The Sedgwick partner and former Florida Bar president said Gonzalez’s death was a reminder that in spite of the external trappings of success, people may be in pain. Trial lawyers, particularly, are under an enormous amount of stress, he noted.
Dietz said Gonzalez’s high-profile caseload of sometimes devastating cases may have added to his stress.
“For years, he has dealt in these horrible circumstances where horrible things happen to people,” he said. “You swallow and you live with other people’s problems.”
Gonzalez’s wife, Janice, posted a long Facebook note Sunday about her high school sweetheart and “the love of my life.”
“I wanted to come out of ‘hiding’ to let everyone know that I am ok and that my greatest desire right now is to have each and every one of you join me in celebrating the Life of one the most AMAZING, SELFLESS, KINDEST, and LOVING people on this Earth…Ervin,” she wrote. Her comments received more than 500 likes and comments by midday Monday.
A funeral Mass is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday at Church of the Little Flower at 2711 Indian Mound Trail in Coral Gables. Burial will follow at Graceland Memorial Park North at 4420 SW Eighth St. in Miami and then a reception at the Biltmore Hotel.