Preventing Suicide: A Challenge to the Profession

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How many of the approximately 34,000 suicides in the US are lawyers or those directly related to the legal community?

No one is quite sure. But if the United States has more than 1 million lawyers and law students, and if they experience the same rate of suicide as the general U.S. population 01 suicides per 100,000 people per year), then since 9/11 an estimated 800 lawyers and law students have died by suicide. And it may be worse. A study of Canadian Bar Association members suggests that the suicide rate among attorneys is actually five to six times higher than the national average, or 55 to 66 per 100,000 per year. lf ABA members are like CBA members, the number of U.S. attorneys and law students who have died by suicide since 9111 could exceed 5,000.

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Why Now? Why Us?

The United States lagged behind other first-world countries in developing a national suicide prevention plan, but now we have one. Because lawyers play a pivotal role in the lives of many distressed people, lawyers were identified as possible "key gatekeepers" in the 2001 Surgeon General's National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goal 6.7: "By 2005, increase the proportion of divorce and family law and criminal defense attorneys who have received training in identifying and responding to persons at risk for suicide." Attorneys have unique opportunities to identify and refer potentially suicidal clients, employees, and colleagues. They are often in the thick of stress, loss, and the psychological combat of conflicted relationships. With their enhanced literacy in mental illness and substance abuse, lawyersare uniquely positioned to act as gatekeepers in the implementation or the first U.S. national suicide prevention effort.

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The aim of the Surgeon General's goal as it relates to lawyers.

The aim of Goal 6.7 is to address the "missed opportunities" to identify and refer potentially suicidal persons who may otherwise remain undetected and unassisted. Although attorneys may have no medical-legal requirement to intervene in the lives of potentially suicidal persons, many of them feel an ethical, humanitarian, and professional duty to take considered and positive action when they encounter someone suicidal. No lawyer or judge of our personal acquaintance is unfamiliar with suicide, its awful consequences, and its devastating effects on loved ones and those left behind, and everyone we know has a "suicide story" to tell. It could have been a law school classmate, a college roommate, someone at the firm, a client, or an old friend who died by suicide.

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Suicide Prevention Is Also about You

We all know lawyers are not immune to personal crises, mood disorders, and substance abuse problems. We also know that many lawyers, while excellent at referring other distressed people for help, are often loath to seek that same help for themselves. Unless we are much mistaken, this means YOU-especially if you are a man. Compared to women, men are boneheads when it comes to asking for help, which may account for a fourfold higher rate of suicide among men compared to women. But smart men make smart choices, and smart choices include taking care of one's mental health.

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Self-referral takes courage.

The U.s. Air Force launched a service-wide suicide prevention program in 1996. Asking for help was redefined as a courageous act. As described in the December 2003 issue of the British Medical Journal, the program produced not only a 33 percent reduction in the suicide rate among airmen and women but also brought about significant reductions in homicide (51 percent), accidental death 08 percent), and domestic violence (30 percent to 54 percent).

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Suicide Prevention Is Violence Prevention

All members of the bar embrace violence prevention. They see too much of it in their work, and they try hard to prevent it. Just imagine how our communities would look and feel if we could be a part of bringing about the same reductions in violence that the U.S. Air Force was able to produce. Remember that the tragedy of the Virginia Tech shootings and almost all similar mass murders are initiated by seriously mentally ill, suicidal persons who, by their premeditated, self-inflicted deaths, avoid prosecution. We already know what is needed and what works. We have lawyer assistance programs. We have effective treatments. Recovery is real. We have strategies and interventions that work. Lives can be saved. What we need now is participation and leadership.

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A True Story

Some may recall a little-known member of the Illinois bar, a lawyer who suffered from suicidal depressions as a young man. After losing his true love to an early death, he became so despondent he told others he felt like killing himself. Recognizing his despair, his friends and colleagues in the bar rallied to his support, took away his pistols and knives, spent time with him, and even locked him up to protect him from himself. Thus did Abraham Lincoln survive his suicidal crisis and learn to live with and gain insights from the depressions that revisited him throughout his life. If one life lost to suicide is too many, imagine the cost of not preventing the suicide of our next Abraham Lincoln, who may, right now, be attending law school. To dither or drag our feet about implementing the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention is not just a matter of will, but of ethics. Fornler surgeon general Dr. David Satcher said, "Suicide is our most preventable form of death."

Additional Resources

LearnQPR QPR (Question, Persuade, and Rder someone for help) is like CPR, an emergency intervention for those who may be considering suicide. A one-hour training program is available from certified QPR instructors nationwide or online at www.qprinstitute.com. The training takes one hour and can save a life.

American Bar Joural--GP Solo

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