This topic may sound grim, but the bottom line is that we can help our colleagues with mental health issues, if we know what to watch for and how to offer assistance.
I have been fortunate not to have anyone close to me commit suicide, though I have known professional acquaintances who killed themselves and I’ve had several friends who have been devastated when a loved one committed suicide. I’ve known many people who have suffered depression. Some have received treatment, and others have not. The problems of depression and suicide are real in any workplace, and perhaps especially in the legal profession.
I attended an American Bar Association CLE program last week on the topic of suicide prevention in the legal profession. My purpose in attending was to obtain the Ethics CLE hours I needed to maintain my bar license. That purpose was fulfilled, but I was struck by how susceptible lawyers are to depression and suicide.
- Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.
- Lawyers rank near the top in professions in incidence of suicide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among attorneys.
- 20.4% of law students have thought seriously about suicide sometime in their life, compared with 5% of all graduate students
- 20.6% of attorneys admit to problematic drinking, compared to 11.8% in a broad, highly educated workforce
The problems of mental illness and suicide in the legal profession are serious. Yet attorneys are not likely to seek help. Attorneys are often perfectionists, and their very perfectionist tendencies both cause them to be more prone to depression and less likely to seek help. Lawyers worry about privacy and confidentiality concerns. They wonder if they will lose professional status and the ability to obtain and retain clients.
Many years ago, I worked with one attorney who shut himself in his office every day for about six weeks. He said he was writing the definitive brief on a particular issue for a case he had. Yet he closed himself off from all his other work and from the rest of his colleagues. This man and his wife had recently separated, and I now realize he was exhibiting classic symptoms of depression.
There are many physical and behavioral signs of depression. Some common signs include
- Physical: high blood pressure, chest pains, rapid heartbeats, headaches, and/or fatigue—all physical symptoms of many diseases.
- Behavioral: more rapid speech, less conversation, isolation from contact with coworkers, weight gain or loss, erratic or changed schedules, disheveled clothes or lack of bathing, or other unusual behavior in the workplace.
When you work with someone regularly, you know when they are not behaving normally. As the commentators in the ABA program said,
“When you know a person, you know what is normal and what is not normal.”
So, what do you do if a colleague is acting oddly?
If you notice a colleague acting oddly—abnormally—then talk to him or her. Don’t be afraid to be direct in asking if the person is thinking of harming himself or herself.
Risk factors for suicide include:
- Previous suicide attempt (particularly if there has been more than one)
- Substantial psychiatric problems
- Alcohol or substance use
- Resistance to accessing mental health treatment
Ask about these things in particular.
Not everyone with these risk factors will try to commit suicide. But there are warning signs. The ABA program gave this list of warning signs that someone may be seriously contemplating suicide:
- Ideation — They have thought of suicide and may have a plan
- Substance use — They are drinking or self-medicating more (with legal or illegal drugs)
- Purposelessness — They feel their life has no meaning
- Anxiety — Their anxiety feels overwhelming
- Trapped — They feel trapped by their circumstances, unable to see a change
- Hopeless — They feel hopeless
- Withdrawal — They are withdrawing from friends and family and activities they enjoy
- Anger — They feel anger, perhaps irrationally
- Recklessness — They act recklessly, not caring about harm to themselves or loved ones
- Mood Change — Their mood is atypical for them for a sustained period
If you know someone with these warning signs, find a way to get them talking. “How is your day going?” is a good opener.
Of course, it helps if you regularly solicit input from your colleagues. An open, inviting workplace offers the best chance of knowing when someone is in emotional pain. The “How is your day going?” opener should not be reserved for coworkers who are possibly suicidal.
Then, when a friend or colleague opens up to you, don’t just give them a pep talk, but really listen. Don’t minimize their concerns, but do express concern and offer assistance. People who are suicidal will not respond to “I’m sure things will get better.” They cannot hear that, and they need help. Let them know you care. Let them know you will get them professional help.
Have resources at your fingertips to call if the problem seems serious and immediate.
Resources that all professionals and managers should have available include the National Suicide Prevention hotline (in the U.S., the number is 1-800-273-TALK).
If you’re in the legal community, know your state’s lawyer assistance program number; it can be found from the American Bar Association link to each state’s site.
Know what resources your company or law firm offers, and have the Employee Assistance Program number handy. Have the number of a local emergency room available.
You can help by offering to stay with them while they call a hotline or your local Legal Assistance Program. Or take them to an Employee Assistance Program counselor.
If you are talking with the person over the phone and not with them, but are seriously concerned about his or her safety, do not hesitate to call the local police and ask them to make a well-being check.
The ABA program I attended was a good reminder for me that we need to watch out for each other in the workplace. When I mentioned this ABA program to a friend of mine in the military, he said that he had attended similar training through the military.
The advice he received was the same that the ABA stressed — ASK! Communicate with your colleagues. Be direct in asking if they are thinking of harming themselves. If they say yes, take action.
Excellent advice for all of us.
What training have you had in suicide prevention? If you have additional tips, add them in the comments below.