Recently, the Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law family lost one of its own when a recent graduate decided to take his own life. He was an accomplished student, successful trial team advocate and a devoted volunteer and mentor to his high school debate team. More importantly, he had an extraordinary heart and the warmest of smiles. Unfortunately, he struggled to pass the bar exam, failing it twice. A few days before bar prep was scheduled to begin again, he committed suicide. At age 26, this young man still had his entire life ahead of him. That much is unquestionable. Maybe the question is: Why did he not see that? Inevitably, those who knew him personally ask: What could we have done differently to help or save him?
We cannot pretend that suicide presents easy questions with simple answers. When a community grapples with this kind of loss, the sentiment is often expressed that if something could have been done, we would have done it. If signs were visible, we would have seen them and intervened. If a cry for help was made, we would have answered the call. In the absence of warning signs or pleas for help, we attempt to comfort ourselves with the resolution that such a loss could not have been prevented, thus relieving ourselves of our own feelings of confusion, anger or even guilt. Whether and how we as individuals move on, however, there is at least one professional institution that should not escape this conversation so easily or so quietly: our law schools.
The Dark Reality Of Our Profession
Of course, we, the members of the legal community, do not know what ultimately led this young man to take his life. What we do know, however, is that based on his struggles with the bar exam, this student (and any other failing student) was clearly at risk for depression, anxiety, hopelessness, withdrawal, feeling a loss of purpose, meaning or identity, and extraordinary stress. We also know that these are classic risk factors for suicidal behavior. Study after study shows that lawyers — by nature of our profession's demands and our perfectionist personalities — are at a greater risk for mental-health disorders and suicide in times of adversity as compared to most other professions. For a more detailed discussion of the psychological underpinnings of lawyer suicides, see Michael J. Newman's "Letting Light Into a Dark Place by Dealing With Mental Health," published in The Legal in May.
Most importantly, we know that on the day bar exam results are released, any recent graduate who failed might be at an immediate risk. The identity of those students is known to every law school, local and state bar association and our Supreme Court. Further, the impact of bar results can be so severe that there have been instances where a student took his or her own life under the mistaken belief that he or she had failed the bar exam.
So, why should law schools be called upon to act? Is the focus on mental health in this country just another example of the "wussification of America" or another example of the assault on personal responsibility? No. The motivation here is not to give trophies for participation or to coddle people who are unsuccessful. The fact of the matter is that the dangers of suicide are real, the prevalence in our profession is well-documented and we have the power to do something to better the lives of people we call our peers, acquaintances and friends.
Our law schools are inviting young men and women into this profession every year fully aware of three dark realities: (1) our profession is highly susceptible to suicide; (2) the type of students drawn to law school exhibit at-risk personality traits like hypercompetitiveness, perfectionism and pessimism; and (3) the suicide rate among attorneys is getting worse with every passing year.
We can still celebrate and reward perfectionism and competitiveness while being mindful of the risks these traits pose in the face of stark adversity. We can invite highly motivated individuals into our profession while preparing them for all of the highs and the lows that the practice of law entails. Some aspect of that preparation must include mental-health awareness and part of that awareness effort should target recent graduates who are foreseeably at risk.
The Call To Action
What can law schools do to help? Although no plan is perfect, there is a list of initiatives that law schools could employ based upon the guidance that is typically directed at high schools, colleges and universities.
•Education and awareness. At the beginning and end of each semester, the law school campus should take the appropriate steps to make sure mental-health issues are discussed and the availability of resources is well-publicized. These efforts should be periodically and systematically repeated throughout the school year. Training and informational materials are easily gathered online or with local or state bar associations that have active programs. The information is readily available to be gathered and disseminated. Students should also be made aware of available resources outside of the law school, such as Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (www.lclpa.org).
•Identify at-risk students. Law schools can quickly identify students who failed the bar exam as at-risk individuals, as this information is directly reported to the administration. After three or four years of paying tuition and graduating with their class, these new alumni deserve a proactive attempt by their alma maters to offer guidance, encouragement, a list of resources for additional help and a strong reminder that it is not the end of the world. Additional at-risk students can be identified by focusing on at-risk behaviors described below.
•Identify at-risk behaviors. There are commonly-accepted warning signs of suicide: (1) thoughts of suicide; (2) increased or excessive use of drugs or alcohol; (3) feelings of hopelessness; (4) feeling a loss of purpose, meaning or identity; (5) feeling trapped; (6) withdrawing from usual activities or from loved ones; (7) unusual behavior, including more reckless behavior; (8) a dramatic mood change; (9) signs of anxiety, including panic, insomnia and agitation; (10) excessive anger or rage. This list should form the foundation of the mass-communication efforts of any comprehensive program.
•Student ownership. Give students ownership in the mental-health awareness program. Since students will have the most contact with any potentially at-risk student, any successful campaign will have to encourage students to look out for situations where they think their classmates may be in trouble. Allowing students to play a significant role in the administration of the program will only help them feel invested in the overall success of the program.
•Communicate with families. Parents and significant others are often known to the school, either formally or informally. If possible, they should also receive correspondence identifying the signs and symptoms of depression and suicide so that they too can be aware of the potential risky scenarios for their loved ones.
•Faculty involvement. Clearly, faculty should have a meaningful role in identifying and reaching out to at-risk students. An effective mental health and suicide prevention program must periodically train faculty members. Additionally, faculty should identify places in the school calendar or extracurricular calendar to raise mental-health awareness.
•Online awareness. There should be a complete and thorough online effort associated with any program so that online services that allow students a private and anonymous pathway to counseling are repeatedly advertised.
•Use bar associations and organizations as a resource. Nationally, bar associations are working with law schools to develop new suicide prevention guidance or to adapt existing guidance to meet the needs of law students and recent graduates. Many bar associations and organizations have confidential hotlines for lawyers who are struggling with depression or other behavioral concerns. Law students should have access to these resources and be well informed of their existence.
•Privacy and confidentiality. Confidentiality is one of the fundamental principles of mental-health treatment and health care laws and regulations. Beyond compliance, schools should make an effort to assure law students that their personal information will remain confidential. If there are no existing counseling services in place, a point person for reports of at-risk behavior might be useful for faculty and students to safely voice any concerns they might have about a particular student.
We understand that no amount of programing, education, training or any other effort will prevent every potential law student, law school graduate or lawyer from committing suicide.
At the same time, for every eight or nine graduates who our law schools extol in their bar passage rate press releases and website updates, there is at least one student who might need to be brought back in the fold. If any of us think back, we may have all had that awkward moment where one of our law school classmates failed the bar and perhaps we thought to ourselves, "I don't know what to tell her, and I don't want to embarrass her further, so I'll just give her some time alone." It is an understandable response, but it can no longer be an acceptable one, particularly from institutions with the information and resources to do more.
A copy of this article will be delivered to the dean of students at every law school in Pennsylvania. •
YL Editorial Board
Peter C. Buckley, Chairman
Leigh Ann Buziak
The Editorial Board of Young Lawyer is composed of members of the legal profession. They serve voluntarily and are independent of Young Lawyer. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. Members of the legal community are invited to contribute signed op-ed pieces.