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Lawyer Suicide: Finding a ray of sunshine through a dark cloud

Clinical Director, Florida Lawyers Assistance Regular News

In a January 2014 article, CNN 1 a sked the question “Why are lawyers killing themselves?” It was a sobering look into the dramatic rise in lawyer suicides across the United States.

The article chronicled the deaths of several prominent and “successful” attorneys who had chosen to end their own lives, much to the surprise and shock of loved ones and close friends. Studies point to the high rate of depression in the legal profession, which the American Psychological Association, among others, identified as the most likely trigger for suicide. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers. Bar associations across the country report lawyer suicide rates are rising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided CNN with the latest available data on suicide deaths by profession. Lawyers ranked fourth when compared to suicides in other occupations (adjusted for age), following only dentists, pharmacists, and physicians.

When most people think about Florida, the first thoughts that come to mind are sandy beaches, palm trees, ocean breezes — in short, paradise. Even the state’s nickname, “The Sunshine State,” conjures up visions of happiness, stress-free living, and fun.

However, recent reports show that the legal profession in Florida is not immune from stress and suicide.

In December 2013, prominent Miami criminal defense attorney Richard S., described as a “quick-witted showman who represented everyone from cocaine cowboys to troubled cops during a long and colorful career, was found dead in his Miami Beach condo.” The news of his death — ruled a suicide by the Dade County Medical Examiner — left the South Florida legal community in shock. 2  Karen M., a former assistant public defender in Lee County, Miami, Tampa, and Collier County, was found dead at her home Ft. Myers in March 2014. Her otherwise successful career had been marred by a struggle with alcohol, eventually leading to a public reprimand and a period of probation. 3 Former Broward Assistant State Attorney Rochelle S. died after falling 15 stories from the roof of a Ft. Lauderdale condo in October 2014, despite her years of community service and advocacy, and certification as a Life Coach and a Mental Toughness Coach. Although a member of many Broward County Bar Association sections and the Legislative Affairs Committee, a member of the Broward County Women’s Lawyer Association, and a recipient of numerous honors based on her legal, leadership, and mentoring skills to the KDA Foundation, there was obviously something else going on inside. In July 2000, Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee C. took his own life after an investigation began regarding his longstanding compulsive gambling issue.

Lawyer assistance programs across the country are making a concerted effort to reach out to the legal profession to educate their members on the risks. In response to the alarming trend, Florida Lawyers Assistance is developing an outreach program to educate the legal community throughout the state. The goals are to raise awareness of the risk factors that may lead to suicide, identify the warning signs of suicide, and outline the steps to take if there is an immediate danger of suicide.

Suicide Risk Factors

Risk factors 5 are characteristics or conditions that increase the chance a person may try to take their life. It is easy to understand that the more risk factors, the greater the chance of someone hurting themselves.

Health Factors

• Mental health conditions.

• Depression.

• Bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder.

• Schizophrenia.

• Borderline or antisocial personality disorder.

• Conduct disorder.

• Psychotic disorders, or psychotic symptoms in the context of any disorder.

Anxiety Disorders

• Substance abuse or gambling disorders.

• Serious or chronic health condition and/or pain.

Environmental Factors

• “Contagion,” including exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide.

• Access to lethal means, including firearms and drugs.

• Prolonged stress factors, which may include harassment by supervisors or co-workers, relationship problems, financial stressors, and unemployment.

• Stressful life events, which may include a death, divorce, or job loss.

Historical Factors

• Previous suicide attempts.

• Family history of suicide attempts.

Suicide Warning Signs

People who kill themselves often exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do. The more warning signs, the greater the risk.

If a person talks about:

• Killing him/herself.

• Having no reason to live.

• Being a burden to others.

• Feeling trapped.

• Unbearable pain.

• “Worth more dead than alive.”

Indications of increased suicide risk may include changes in behavior, especially if it’s related to a painful event, loss, or change.

• Increased use of alcohol or drugs.

• Looking for suicide methodologies, such as searching online for materials or means.

Acting recklessly
• Withdrawing from activities.

• Isolating from family and friends.

• Sleeping too much or too little.

• Visiting or calling people to say goodbye.

• Giving away prized possessions.

• Aggression.

People who are considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods.

• Depression.

• Loss of interest.

• Rage.

• Irritability.

• Humiliation.

• Anxiety.

How you can help someone who is threatening suicide or engaging in suicidal behaviors :
• Be aware — learn the risk factors and warning signs for suicide and where to get help.

• Be direct — talk openly about suicide, what you have observed, and what your concerns are regarding his/her well-being.

• Be willing to listen — allow expression of feelings, accept the feelings, and be patient.

• Be nonjudgmental — don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong or whether the person’s feelings are good or bad; don’t give a lecture on the value of life.

• Be available — show interest, understanding, and support.

• Don’t dare him/her to engage in suicidal behaviors.

• Don’t act shocked.

• Don’t ask “why.”

• Don’t be sworn to secrecy.

• Offer hope that alternatives are available — but don’t offer reassurances that any one alternative will turn things around in the near future.

• Take action — remove lethal means of self-harm such as pills, ropes, firearms, and alcohol, or other drugs.

• Get help from others with more experience and expertise.

• Be actively involved in encouraging the person to see a mental health professional as soon as possible and ensure that an appointment is made.

Remember, help is just a phone call away:

Florida Lawyers Assistance is a nonprofit corporation formed in 1986 in response to the Florida Supreme Court’s mandate that a program be created to identify and offer assistance to Bar members who suffer from substance abuse, mental health, or other disorders that negatively affect their lives and careers (Bar Rule 2-9.11). FLA is independent of The Florida Bar, although it works cooperatively with the Bar and does receive financial and material support from that organization.

Paramount to FLA is the protection of confidentiality for those attorneys who voluntarily contact FLA for help. Confidentiality in voluntary cases is protected by a written contract with The Florida Bar, which guarantees the confidentiality of FLA records, as well as by Bar Rule 3-7.1(j), F.S. Ch. §§397.482-486, and other state and federal regulations.

Judges, attorneys, and law students who seek the assistance of FLA need not worry that FLA will report them to the Bar, the Board of Bar Examiners, or their employer. Information is shared with these entities only if the participating individual signs a waiver of confidentiality. FLA’s primary purpose is to assist the impaired attorney in his or her recovery.

The Florida Lawyers Assistance 24-hour hotline is 954-566-9040. A compassionate voice is waiting to guide you in seeking the best solutions to your current predicament. In the event the circumstances warrant immediate intervention, contact 911 or The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), which will connect you to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

We all share in the belief that “No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living.”

Scott Weinstein is a licensed psychotherapist, and FLA’s full-time clinical director. He is available at the FLA hotline or by email at [email protected] .

1 Rosa Flores and Rose Marie Arce, CNN, January 19, 2014.

2 Jay Weaver and David Ovalle; Miami Herald, December 10, 2013.

3 Aisling Swift, Naples Daily News, March 8, 2014.

4 Coral Springs Talk, October 8, 2014.

5 American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2015.

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