The Lawyers’ Epidemic: Depression, Suicide, and Substance Abuse

In a departure from the usual at Abnormal Use, we offer this Abnormal Public Service Announcement.

A study by Johns Hopkins University found that among more than 100 occupations studied, lawyers were three times more likely to suffer from depression than any other profession.  Ted David, Can Lawyers Learn to Be Happy?, 57 No. 4 Prac. Law 29 (2011).  According to this piece,  “a quality-of-life survey conducted by the North Carolina Bar Association in 1991 reported that almost 26 percent of the bar’s members exhibited symptoms of clinical depression. Almost 12 percent of them said they contemplated suicide at least once each month.”  See Michael J. Sweeney, The Devastation of Depression.  The North Carolina study was prompted in part by the suicides of eight Mecklenburg County, North Carolina lawyers in a seven-year period.  Several years ago, in a period of just 18 months, six lawyers died by suicide in South Carolina.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among attorneys, after cancer and heart disease.  Thus, the rate of death by suicide for lawyers is nearly six times the suicide rate for the general population.  Suicide can be prevented.  While some suicides occur without any outward warning, most do not.  We can prevent suicide among lawyers by learning to recognize the signs of someone at risk, taking those signs seriously, and knowing how to respond to them.

The National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse estimates that 10 percent of the U.S. population is alcoholic or chemically dependent.  In the legal profession, the abuse may be as high as 20 percent.  David, supra.  According to this piece, “[a]lcoholism is a factor in 30 percent of all completed suicides.”  Reports from lawyer assistance programs indicate that 50 percent of lawyer discipline cases involve chemical dependency.

Whether you are the husband, wife, employee, judge, law student, law partner, law firm associate, friend, or colleague of a person challenged by depression or substance abuse, your understanding of the nature of the problem can play a vital part in helping that individual to achieve and maintain recovery.  Please remember that there is hope, and there is help.  You are not alone.

In South Carolina, call the Lawyers Helping Lawyers toll-free helpline at 866-545-9590.  Check with your State’s bar for a lawyer assistance program or click this link for the ABA directory of lawyer assistance programs.

(See also here for a recent similar article by Stuart Mauney in the January 2012 issue of the South Carolina Lawyer).


  1. I am the creator of the website – it was a site set up four years ago for law students, lawyers and judges who struggle with depression. It is full of guest articles, blogs, depression in the news, resources, where to get help and many other things. It’s the only site of its kind and I encourage all readers to visit or share it with a friend or colleague who struggles the depression. I am a 50 year old trial lawyer and I just wanted to make something that, I hope, would help others. Thank, Dan

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  3. Sam Lain says:

    I am a lawyer who has had my license suspended recently. I had a back injury in 2001 and have been prescribed medicine for pain after at least a dozen other treatments and two surgeries that provided no relief.
    Simply put, I became a pariah when people found out that I took evil “narcotics”. I have lost two jobs including a solid job with the state of Tennessee. I got accused of being under the influence in the court room. That accusation was false. But I could not win because if I had taken any thing for pain I would be deemed to be under the influence.
    I have tried and won many cases while taking medicine for pain. I have handled over a thousand cases. No one knew until I told them. Telling anyone was a large mistake. The Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility referred me to the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program or “TLAP”. TLAP is a glorified 12 step program. It’s an all or nothing approach. When I have gone to TLAP meetings I am surrounded by alcoholics. There is nothing wrong with being an alcoholic or a “naroholic” but I am neither. TLAP had me evaluated and the Psychiatrist stated that I did not have a substance abuse problem. Now TLAP, after burying the evaluation for six months, wants me to get another evaluation.
    I feel like a spider caught in a bureaucratic spider web. I lost my license due to the fact that I manifested symptoms of burnout and depression. Plus if I missed court due to pain the assumption was I was missing court because I was “on drugs”.
    I have been without my license for over a year and although I was not enjoying practicing law I am now living in an out of work hell. I am suffering from the twin problems of opiophobia and too many lawyers.
    I used to think that life was fair if one appealed to the reason of others. Damn was I naïve. I am in a struggle with a thoughtless bureaucracy. And trust me do every thing you can to avoid getting caught up in either a disciplinary program that involves you getting help for substance abuse BUT if you have a substance abuse problem Lawyers Assistance Programs may help.

  4. Anonymous says:

    First off, I think that legal use of prescribed substances is a very different matter than illegal use of drug or chronic use of alcohol.

    Many other occupations involve regular drug testing. Why shouldn’t the legal profession? Yes, it would need to be handled so that sick people treated by a physician could be either exempt from reporting or allowed paid medical leave of some type.

    The really insidious one here is cocaine-which is all too common among folks in the legal and financial community. Even in occasional use, cocaine can subtly alter folks ethical sense.

    I think the level of substance issues among discliplined lawyers may be higher than reported because there is no routine testing program-and all but the worse problems can be easily ignored.

    When we consumers of legal services are paying $150-250/billable hour, we deserve an attorney who is really there for us-and those attorneys with mental health/substance issues deserve some kind of paid leave which could be funded by a broad tax on legal services.

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