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).