It’s not something you read about very often, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does keep data on professions with high incidence of suicide. Currently, lawyers are fourth on that list, the CDC tells CNN, right behind dentists, pharmacists, and physicians. What they can’t tell us, exactly, is why lawyers rank so high on the list, or specifically what makes some professions more prone to suicide than others.
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Stress is obviously a factor, but it’s not the whole explanation.
“There are a lot of high stress professions,” Yvette Hourigan tells CNN. Hourigan runs 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 to 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.”
An Isolating Profession
Significantly, lawyers’ problems with depression seem to start in law school, CNN notes. A study conducted by Dr. Andy Benjamin of the University of Washington estimated that 40 percent of law students suffered from depression by the time they graduated. In addition, law students are less likely to seek help for mental illness, for fear of failing the “character and fitness” requirements of the bar.
Right from the start, lawyers learn to keep their problems to themselves, and then they enter a profession that relies on confrontation and adversity.
The Economy Isn’t Helping
Since the recession, many firms — even big, prestigious ones — have laid off some employees and lowered pay for others. ABA Journal reports that stagnation in law jobs might have started before the recession — and probably isn’t going to change any time soon:
“The golden era is gone, but this is not because the law itself is becoming less relevant. Rather, the sea change reflects an urgent need for better and cheaper legal services that can keep pace with the demands of a rapidly globalizing world.”
Not exactly music to the ears of lawyers who finds themselves struggling to change with the times, perhaps with a boatload of law school loans in tow.
Not One Problem, But Many
Experts can’t point to one cause behind the increase in depression and suicide among attorneys, but that might be because there’s a confluence of factors behind the problem.
The solution to one of the issues is clear, if not easy: create better resources for lawyers struggling with depression, and destigmatize mental illness. That’s what some of the surviving family members and colleagues have done, creating mental health assistance groups to help provide support before it’s too late.
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