In January 2014, CNN reported that lawyers are among the top five occupations associated with suicide. In the summer of 2014, just before the start of the law school academic year, a law professor from the University of Vermont died by suicide. Since then, in a period of eight months, the United States law school community has seen seven law student deaths from suicide. Approximately one suicide per month, and the actual number may be greater than what has been reported by the media and the law schools.
In the painful days, weeks, and months after a suicide, family members and loved ones often are left with unanswered questions. Many times one of those questions or comments is some version of “I don’t understand why (s)/he did not just ask for help.”
A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, it was found that of people aged 35 and younger who died by suicide, only 15% had received mental health treatment within one month of their death by suicide and just 24% had received mental health treatment within one year of their suicide. The study also found that 23% of those who died by suicide who were under 35 visited a primary care doctor within one month of their death and 62% visited a primary care doctor within one year of their death.
While interpretation of statistics should be done with caution, the data suggests that young people at risk for suicide present more often to primary care physicians than mental health professionals. And while this perhaps speaks to the need to better train primary care physicians to recognize warning signs of suicide, it also begs the question just posed: why don’t people who are feeling suicidal reach out for help?
Based on feedback from law students who attended one of the Dave Nee Foundation’s Uncommon Counsel programs at 35 different schools in the 2013-2014 academic year, 64% agree or strongly agree with the statement that law students do not seek help when needed for fear of the professional consequences. One of our 2L attendees suggested: “…lobby the ABA and character and fitness people to recognize treatment for depression is a good thing, and that legal professionals are people too.” Another 1L attendee noted, “I think it is worthwhile to discuss the stigma associated with seeking mental health services, i.e. perception that s/he ‘can’t hack it’ is weak, thin-skinned, that you’re ‘unstable’ or ‘crazy’. Professional consequences of people knowing this about you, etc.”
While it is easy to point to the ABA and to other systems that may contribute to stigma, it is harder to see systemic change. It is easier to begin with individual change. Here are some things that you can do beginning right now to help reduce the stigma associated with mental health treatment.
Talk non-judgmentally with anyone you are concerned about:
- It is OK to ask someone if they need help.
- It is OK to ask someone if they are thinking about suicide, it will NOT give them the idea.
- It is NOT OK to say “You are not thinking about suicide are you?” or “What do you have to be depressed about?”
- It is OK to say, “I have noticed some changes in your behavior, is everything OK?”
- It is OK to say “It sounds like you are experiencing depression, often times people with depression have suicidal thoughts, are you thinking about suicide?”
Be mindful of language:
- The term “died by suicide” is preferable to “committed suicide” as the term “commit” has negative connotations.
- Avoid talking about suicide attempts as “successful or unsuccessful”; there are more suicide attempts in a year than completed suicides.
- When describing individuals with a mental health diagnosis, try not to define them by that diagnosis. Put the person first, “s/he is a person with bipolar disorder” not “s/he’s bipolar.”
Promote mental health care services:
- We are encouraged regularly to get a physical exam annually; we are regularly tested for blood pressure, glucose, and BMI. Why not promote a mental health check up?
- Visit Screening for Mental Health to find out how to bring an online screening service to your place of employment.
For more tips on how to help someone or for ways you can be involved in reducing stigma please visit the Dave Nee Foundation’s website.
June of 2015 will be the 10th anniversary of Dave Nee’s suicide. Dave was a beloved and brilliant brother, friend, son, and student. The suicide of Dave Nee prompted his loved ones, friends, and family to honor Dave’s life and prevent deaths like his from happening again by establishing the Dave Nee Foundation. Ten years later, there is much that the Foundation has done to promote wellness, raises awareness about depression & anxiety, and to prevent suicide in the legal field via law school and state bar association presentations. We know that 97% of our Uncommon Counsel attendees agree or strongly agree that the information learned will help them to recognize the symptoms of depression. We know that 95% of our Uncommon Counsel attendees agree or strongly agree that as a result of the presentation they can identify three warning signs of suicide. Perhaps most importantly, we know that 97% of Uncommon Counsel attendees agree or strongly agree that they know what steps to take if they felt a law student was at risk for suicide. (All data based on 2013-2014 Uncommon Counsel program feedback.)
As much progress and impact we hope we have had, until there are NO news stories of lawyer and law student suicides, we will not be satisfied. We hope that our passion and commitment might inspire other stakeholders, perhaps more powerful ones, like the ABA, the NCBE, law school administrators, and Big Law firms, to take steps towards creating cultural change and help us to destigmatize getting help and treatment for mental health concerns in the legal profession.
By Katherine Bender
Upon graduating from Georgetown University as an English and Theology major, Katherine Bender began teaching at an independent Catholic secondary school for girls in Philadelphia. During this time, she became increasingly interested in the social concerns of young women and decided to pursue a degree in community counseling with a focus on women’s issues at the University of Scranton. After completing an internship providing individual counseling to undergraduate students at a residential college, as part of her Master’s degree in counseling, she began working as a full time mental health counselor for college students in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Recognizing that advocating for students with mental health issues in higher education would likely require a Ph.D., Kate began her doctoral work at Old Dominion University in January of 2011, focused her dissertation on research regarding college student suicide prevention, and in the summer of 2013, successfully completed her doctoral program. She now has a PhD in Counseling, Counselor Education & Supervision.
She joined the team at the Dave Nee Foundation as Programming Consultant in September of 2012 and became Programming Director in September 2013. In this role, she leads the Uncommon Counsel program and LawLifeline. She sees her role with the Dave Nee Foundation as an excellent way to continue to provide outreach services and to raise awareness about depression, anxiety, and suicide prevention for higher education students.
You can reach Kate by email at Kbender@daveneefoundation.org