Colorado Supreme Court
Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel
Promoting Professionalism. Protecting the Public.
Event opens dialogue about lawyer suicide
The profession’s leaders met last month to address an issue that affects so many yet is spoken about so little. As one attendee put it, “We just need to start talking about it.”
By JAMES CARLSON
Denver attorney Carlos Migoya stood before a group of judges and lawyers last month and talked about a problem affecting so many but spoken of so little.
“Suicide. Depression.” he said. “We just need to start saying the words.”
Speaking at a leadership roundtable on the issue, Migoya recalled one of his close lawyer friends who committed suicide. Sitting nearby, Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy Rice nodded. She knew colleagues who committed suicide. So did Clerk of the Supreme Court Chris Ryan, who attended and spoke about his brother taking his own life. Tom Adgate, another Colorado attorney, told his personal struggle with severe depression and suicidal thoughts. Very powerful.
Everyone who spoke agreed: We need to talk more openly about this.
The roundtable — “Confronting the Issue: The Unacceptable Rate of Suicide in Our Profession” — was co-hosted by the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP), Colorado Lawyers Helping Lawyers (CLHL), and the Carson J. Spencer Foundation. The state’s leading lawyers and judges attended, including Chief Justice Rice and former Chief Justice Michael Bender. The crowd heard personal stories of loss and heard about the big picture statistics.
And the statistics are sobering. In the Colorado population as a whole, suicide is a silent problem. In 2014, 1,058 Coloradoans died by suicide, the highest number ever recorded and more than double the number who died in car crashes that year.
Attorneys are particularly vulnerable. Recently, Barbara Ezyk, Executive Director of COLAP, conducted an informal survey of lawyer assistance programs. Nineteen states responded for a total of 42 known judge/lawyer suicides in a six-month period. (Colorado had two known suicides during that same time frame.) That averages out to seven judges/ lawyers committing suicide each month. And the American Bar Association and the Betty Ford Foundation released a research study this month showing that nearly one in three attorneys struggle with some form of depression.
Attendants at the roundtable in January said the legal culture prevents people from even acknowledging the problem. Lawyers have gone through so much to get to where they are. They studied hard to get into law school, worked their butt off to earn their J.D., poured themselves into bar exam preparation and then joined a field where they feel they have to be someone else’s rock, the go-to person who is always resilient.
“How do you then get these people to admit they’re struggling?” Migoya asked during one of the small-group discussions.
Sally Spencer-Thomas, the CEO of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation, pointed to the shifting perception of cancer as a model for the future of suicide prevention. She recalled how her father’s generation saw cancer as a weakness and that when he finally admitted to her that he had prostate cancer, he whispered it so softly she could barely hear it.
“Now we talk about it, and we kick cancer’s butt,” she said. “We need to start talking about suicide.”
Because we’re now so open about cancer, we tend to catch it earlier. Not so with suicides. Spencer-Thomas said we tend to treat suicide at the acute level, only when someone is on the edge. We need to reach people earlier before they even consider it. “It’s like if we only treated cancer at stage IV,” she said.
The U.S. Air Force is a perfect case study. Officials noted that suicides in their ranks had increased significantly from 1990 to 1994 when the rate peaked at 16.4 per 100,000. The Air Force launched a program that emphasized leadership involvement and a community approach to prevention. It worked to identify those at risk early and guide them toward treatment. Between 1996 and 2002, the rate of suicide among Air Force personnel dropped 33 percent.
At the roundtable last month, those gathered broke into small groups to discuss how to address the issue in the lawyer population. Many said the first and biggest step was simply to raise awareness. Some of the ideas discussed were to:
· Continue the discussion back at the lawyers’ organizations, firms and offices; and
· Change the culture of the profession to create a culture of wellness that encourages people to ask for help; and
· Make continuing legal education on mental health and substance abuse mandatory; and
· Make lawyers more aware of resources such as the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program and Colorado Lawyers Helping Lawyers
The high rate of depression and suicide in the legal profession is unacceptable; let’s keep the discussion on going, out and in the open.
If you or someone you know is in need of confidential assistance or support, please reach out to the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program today.
James Carlson is the Information Resources Coordinator with the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel.