The Suicide of a Law Student Hits Home

When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. ‘This is my last experiment,’ wrote a young chemist in his suicide note. ‘If there is any eternal torment worse than mine I’ll have to be shown.’ – Kay Redfield Jamison, M.D., “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide”

A second-year law student at the University at Buffalo School of Law, Matthew Benedict, died by suicide earlier this week by leaping from the Liberty Building he had been clerking at according to the Buffalo News. Another account of Matt’s life and suicide was reported in The New York Law Journal.

Matt’s funeral is tomorrow. By all account’s he was a tremendous, loving, talented, bright young man.Matt was kind-hearted, passionate and driven.

One of Matt’s friend’s wrote this sympathy section of the funeral notice:

“He was brilliant, authentic and loyal. Matt encompassed qualities that undeniably made him stand out from the crowd, and loved by many. But what I admired most about Matt was his unconditional love for his family. He had immense respect for his parents, and a strong bond with his three siblings. Matt spent a lot of time with his family, and whenever I was with the Benedict family, I felt a great amount of love, appreciation, and support for one another.”

Matt reportedly suffered with depression.

Shocking. Sad beyond words. But I will try to offer a few.

Earlier in my legal career, I occupied an office on the 16th floor of the Liberty Building for five years. Hearing about Matt’s death, brought back images from those days.

This suicide hits home for me.

As a lawyer who has suffered from major depression for almost 20 years, I never had suicidal ideations. However, I could see how someone going through depression could think about suicide. The pain of depression can be that horrible.

There is a stigma attached to disclosing to anyone you have depression. But to say that you have suicidal thoughts would be, for must with depression, unheard of.  I feared others would think me “crazy” or ready for a stay in a mental institution.  The reality is, as most who have gone through major depression understand, that this happens.  That’s why it is listed as one of the nine symptoms of major depression. One study reports that approximately 10% of those with depression have had suicidal thoughts and/or plans.

Fortunately for me, my thoughts never went beyond that. I never planned or attempted suicide. But I know others who have. Most survived; a few did not.

A few years, I recall sitting at my desk at my law office.  It was around noon.  I had too much work to grab lunch.  I got a text from a fellow lawyer and friend.  He was a highly successful insurance defense trial lawyer. And also, a member of the depression support group I started for lawyers ten years ago.

I sometimes ignore texts.

Thank God, I didn’t brush off this one.

Dear Dan,

By the time you read this, I will be dead. You can find my body in my law office.  My car is parked in the City lot on the 5th floor.  Thanks, Steve.

I immediately called 911. The police found my friend unconscious in his office following a drug overdose. His stomach was pumped, and he survived.

Talking to my friend later, he said that he had convinced himself that the pain of living another day with depression was worse than the pain of killing himself.

It’s tough to understand this – if you’ve never been through major depression.

David Foster Wallace, the author of the best-selling book “Infinite Jest,” who later committed himself after suffering from depression for years, writes:

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.”

The Depression-Suicide Connection

Approximately 25 million Americans suffer from depression each year. It is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and globally, where some 350 million people are afflicted.

Although the vast majority of people who have depression do not die by suicide, having major depression does increase suicide risk compared to people without depression.

According to a 2018 Center for Disease Control report, suicides are on the rise in this country.

The Washington Post, reporting on the release of the study, noted that 54% of those who died by suicide had no diagnosed mental health condition.

But Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said that statistic must be viewed in context.

“When you do a psychological autopsy and go and look carefully at medical records and talk to family members of the victims,” he said, “90 percent will have evidence of a mental health condition.” That indicates a large portion weren’t diagnosed, “which suggests to me that they’re not getting the help they need.”

Depression is among the most treatable of psychiatric illnesses. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of people with depression respond positively to treatment, and almost all patients gain some relief from their symptoms. But first, depression has to be recognized.

But according to the organization Mental Health America, 30% to 70% of suicide victims suffer from major depression or bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder.

Some facts on suicide in this country from 2017 (the latest data available):

  • Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • More people died by suicide (47,173) than homicide.
  • There we approximately 1,400,000 suicide attempts.
  • White males accounted for 69.7% of suicide deaths.
  • On average, there are 129 suicides per day in this country.
  • 40% of persons who complete suicide have made a previous attempt
  • Nine of out ten people who attempt suicide and survive, do not go on to complete suicide at a later date.
  • Each suicide intimately affects at least six other people (estimated). In 2013, it was estimated that one in every 63 Americans became a suicide-loss survivor.

High Rates of Depression in Law School Contribute to Suicides

The specific details of what led this bright, talented young man to jump are unknown.

But what we do know is that his suicide is far from an isolated incident in the legal profession.

A 2016 survey of 3000 law students revealed that 17% had screened positive for depression, and 21% reported they had seriously thought about suicide in their lifetimes. 6% said, they had seriously thought of suicide within the past twelve months.

A few years, I was contacted by the Dave Nee Foundation to give a speech at its annual fundraiser in New York City. The foundation was founded by friends of Dave following his suicide during his third-year of law school at Fordham. It was an amazing event with over 150 people there to support the foundation’s mission to educate others about depression and suicide in law schools and the legal profession.  I met Dave’s friends and family. They were all gracious, welcoming, and smiling.

It came time for my short time.  The room darkened and I stepped up to the dais.  A spot light shone on me and it was difficult to make out the faces of people in the audience as I spoke – except one.  Near the stage was Dave’s mother. I looked at her. Here face crumbled into grief.  It was a powerful moment I will never forget. Though I never met Dave, he is a big reason why I continue to give speeches on depression.

The High Rate of Lawyer Depression

High rates of depression rise following graduation from law school.

A 2016 survey of almost 13,000 practicing lawyers and judges, found the following:

  • 28 % of lawyers reported experiencing depression within the past 12 months, compared 1% for the general population.
  • 46% reported they had encountered a problem with depression over the course of their legal careers.
  • 5% reported having had suicidal thoughts at some point in their legal career.
  • 19% experienced anxiety.
  • In terms of career prevalence, 61% reported concerns with anxiety at some point in their career, and 46% reported concerns with depression.
  • Mental health concerns often co-occur with alcohol use disorders and our study reveals significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among those screening positive for problematic alcohol use.

Lawyers rank 5th in incidence of suicide by occupation.

Patrick Krill, a lawyer and mental health consultant, wrote Why Are Lawyers Prone to Suicide? for CNN:

“Despite whatever preconceptions or judgments, many people may have of lawyers and the work they do, there are facts about the practice of law that can’t be denied: It’s tougher than most people think and frequently less fulfilling than they would ever believe.

The psychologist Rollo May famously defined depression as “the inability to construct a future.” And, unfortunately for many attorneys who define their existence by a hard-earned membership in the legal profession, the powerful despair they experience when that profession overwhelms and demoralizes them doesn’t leave them much psychological real estate for constructing a future they can believe in.

Not a future where the practice of law will be what they hoped for, not a future where their lives will have balance and joy, and not a future where their relationships will bring fulfillment and their stresses will seem manageable. They just can’t see it. Unable or unwilling to extract themselves from the psychological, financial and personal mire they never would have expected years of hard work and discipline to bring them, many lawyers then find themselves sinking into a funk, a bottle or a grave.”

A few years ago, I spoke at a conference put on by the Cincinnati Bar Association on depression in the legal profession.  There were about 60 lawyers in attendance.  A few days after the event, I was contacted by another speaker who informed me that one of the attendees had died by suicide.  It took my breath away.  His name was Ken Jamison, a highly successful lawyer and beloved member of his legal community.  His friend and then law partner, Tabitha Hochscheid, Esq., wrote a deeply personal blog about Ken for my website. Here, in part, is her moving tribute:

“I’ll always miss Ken Jameson. The courage and commitment he showed to his clients, his family and those of us in business with him is something I admire. However, his suffering in silence has left me and his other colleagues with regrets as to what we could have done to help. In the end, however, Ken could not give himself permission to be less than perfect and eventually, felt those in his life were better off without him. It is truly a sad ending to a beautiful life that could have been prevented. My hope in sharing Ken’s story is that there will be greater recognition of depression and the despair that can accompany and that it will help someone struggling with these issues. As for Ken, I hope he has found the peace that life did not provide.”

What can we do?

Learn about the symptoms of depression and possible warning signs for suicide.

Depression is a significant risk factor for suicide. The deep despair and hopelessness that goes along with depression can make suicide feel like the only way to escape the pain. If you have a loved one with depression, take any suicidal talk or behavior seriously and watch for the warning signs:

  1. Talking about killing or harming one’s self
  2. Expressing strong feelings of hopelessness or being trapped
  3. An unusual preoccupation with death or dying
  4. Acting recklessly, as if they have a death wish (e.g., speeding through red lights)
  5. Calling or visiting people to say goodbye
  6. Getting affairs in order (giving away prized possessions, tying up loose ends)
  7. Saying things like “Everyone would be better off without me” or “I want out”
  8. A sudden switch from being extremely depressed to acting calm and happy

According to the Mayo Clinic, the first step is to find out whether the person is in danger of acting on suicidal feelings. Be sensitive, but ask direct questions, such as:

  • How are you coping with what’s been happening in your life?
  • Do you ever feel like just giving up?
  • Are you thinking about dying?
  • Are you thinking about hurting yourself?
  • Are you thinking about suicide?
  • Have you ever thought about suicide before, or tried to harm yourself before?
  • Have you thought about how or when you’d do it?
  • Do you have access to weapons or things that can be used as weapons to harm yourself?

Asking about suicidal thoughts or feelings won’t push someone into doing something self-destructive. In fact, offering an opportunity to talk about feelings may reduce the risk of acting on suicidal feelings.

If a friend or loved one is thinking about suicide, he or she needs professional help, even if suicide isn’t an immediate danger. Here’s what you can do.

Encourage the person to call a suicide hotline number. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. There is also a confidential online chat available.

Encourage the person to seek treatment. A suicidal or severely depressed person may not have the energy or motivation to find help. If the person doesn’t want to consult a doctor or mental health provider, suggest finding help from a support group, crisis center, faith community, teacher or another trusted person. You can offer support and advice — but remember that it’s not your job to substitute for a mental health provider.

Offer to help the person take steps to get assistance and support. For example, you can research treatment options, make phone calls and review insurance benefit information, or even offer to go with the person to an appointment.

Encourage the person to communicate with you. Someone who’s suicidal may be tempted to bottle up feelings because he or she feels ashamed, guilty, or embarrassed. Be supportive and understanding, and express your opinions without placing blame. Listen attentively and avoid interrupting.

Be respectful and acknowledge the person’s feelings. Don’t try to talk the person out of his or her feelings or express shock. Remember, even though someone who’s suicidal isn’t thinking logically, the emotions are real. Not respecting how the person feels can shut down communication.

Don’t be patronizing or judgmental. For example, don’t tell someone, “Things could be worse” or “You have everything to live for.” Instead, ask questions such as, “What’s causing you to feel so bad?” “What would make you feel better?” or “How can I help?”

Never promise to keep someone’s suicidal feelings a secret. Be understanding, but explain that you may not be able to keep such a promise if you think the person’s life is in danger. At that point, you have to get help.

Offer reassurance that things can get better. When someone is suicidal, it seems as if nothing will make things better. Reassure the person that with appropriate treatment, he or she can develop other ways to cope and can feel better about life again.

Encourage the person to avoid alcohol and drug use. Using drugs or alcohol may seem to ease the painful feelings, but ultimately, it makes things worse — it can lead to reckless behavior, or feeling more depressed. If the person can’t quit on his or her own, offer to help find treatment.

Remove potentially dangerous items from the person’s home, if possible. If you can, make sure the person doesn’t have items around that could be used for suicide — such as knives, razors, guns, or drugs. If the person takes a medication that could be used for overdose, encourage him or her to have someone safeguard it and give it as prescribed.

Take all signs of suicidal behavior seriously

If someone says he or she is thinking of suicide or behaves in a way that makes you think the person may be suicidal, don’t play it down or ignore the situation. Many people who kill themselves have expressed the intention at some point. You may worry that you’re overreacting, but the safety of your friend or loved one is most important. Don’t worry about straining your relationship when someone’s life is at stake.

You’re not responsible for preventing someone from taking his or her own life — but your intervention may help the person see that other options are available to stay safe and get treatment.

If someone is in immediate danger of committing suicide, call 911 immediately.

Other Resources

Each state has a Lawyers Assistance Program to provide law students and lawyers with confidential help regarding a mental health or addiction programs.  Here is a list of state LAP’s.

If you happen to live in the Buffalo, New York area, you can contact Crisis Service’s 24-Hour Crisis Hotline at (716) 834-3131. If you would like to become actively involved in the Western New York Community on this issue, contact Dr. Celia Spacone, Director of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Erie County, at the same number.

Matt’s family has set up a fund where you can donate to their cause to “improve the lives of athletes that battle mental health issues.” This was a cause dear to Matt’s heart.  He was a star football player at Middlebury College. Go to their website, “Matthew Benedict’s One Last Goal,” to contribute.

By Daniel T. Lukasik, Esq.

18 Tips on How to Start a Depression Support Group

I started a depression support group seven years ago. It’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done. We started out with ten people.  It met once a month. Over time, it evolved into every-other week.  We now gather once a week.  I’ve been asked many times about how to start a depression support group.  Here are a few pointers to help you get going. They’re in no particular order of importance.

1.   Be clear about what a support group is

A support group is a regular gathering of folks suffering from depression who share their struggles with fellow sufferers to gain insight, strength and hope. These meetings are less structured and more open-ended and the content doesn’t come from a mental health professional. In constrast, group therapy is more structured, focused on teaching, and has a clear outcome that the group is trying to reach. They’re led by a therapist.

2.   Picking a place

I suggest you seek out a place to meet at a school, college, church, community center, library or other free space in your community.  I guess you could have it in your home.  I have never done that. I don’t know anyone else who has.  In my view, the problem with this spot is that you must be prepared to have it there every single time. It may put a lot of responsibility on you. What happens if you’re sick or on vacation and can’t host the gathering?  I also don’t suggest rotating the location of the meetings to different members’ homes.  This doesn’t work because it becomes just too complicated for people to remember where the meeting is being held.  Pick one place and stick with it.

3.   Determine a schedule

With the help of initial support-group members, decide how often to meet and for how long. For example, every two weeks for 60 to 90 minutes.  My experience has been not to fiddle with the day and time you ultimately pick. Members in my group know, come hell or high water, meetings start at 12:30 sharp and end at 1:30 every single Friday.  They need not think about it.  If they miss some meetings, they’re not left hanging about when the next meeting is.

If others tend to come late to the meeting, always start it on time anyways.  My experience is that people appreciate this.  Everyone has busy schedules and other things to do.   Meetings should be no less than once every two weeks because interest can wane if the group doesn’t meet often. If the meetings are too far apart, people forget each other’s stories.

4.   Talk with your therapist

If you’re in therapy, talk with him or her about what you plan on doing and why.  They know you well and can offer some suggestions. They’ve either run groups and/or been trained in how to do so.  Get some ideas. 

5.   You don’t have to rebuild the wheel

Depression support groups happen everyday around the country. They’re run by various organizations such as the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.  Check out their website to see where these groups meet in your community and go to a few to see how they function.  

6.   How Do I Find Support Group Members

You need to get the word out. Develop a flyer that briefly describes your group, where and when it meets, and contact information. You may also want to contact other support groups and ask if they can refer people to you or market your group on Facebook and other social networking sites.   One thing I did was to write columns in my local paper about my own experiences with depression and the support group.  This helped enormously.  People connect with personal stories.  It also helps people overcome the stigma of attending a meeting.  If you’re comfortable with it, ask to speak at your local church or other social organizations you might be a part of.   Another way to find members is to search for therapists who have offices within a 10-mile radius of where the meetings are going to be held.  I’d send them flyers so that could refer people in need of support. Most therapists aren’t even aware of such groups. So educate them!

7.   Have and opening and closing ritual

Early on, our group crafted an opening that we read before every meeting. I have typed out the opening we use at my group at the end of this blog. Towards the end of the meeting, I will say, “We’ve got about ten minutes left, is there anyone who hasn’t shared that would like to speak?”  I’ll then conclude, “See you all next Friday at 1:30.” A consistent structure to the meetings helps a lot.

8.   Arrange for refreshments.

Ask support-group members to take turns providing snacks and drinks if desired.

9.   Create a confidential list-serve

It’s a good idea to get everyone’s email address to communicate with the group in the event of a meeting cancellation due to the weather or other problems. Sometimes, your usual location needs to be changed on a particular date because the building is closed for the holidays, etcetera.  Send out an e-mail the day before the group meets to remind them there’s a gather the next day.  People get busy and like these little pokes. I also forward onto members of group activities – sometimes we meet for dinner or breakfast.  I also pass along depression blogs or news I’ve come across that might be interest.  A confidential list-serve is easy to create.  Check out this webpage about how to create a list-serve through Goggle.  This is what I use.  To make it confidential, I e-mail myself notices and blind copy the rest of the group.   It works. 

10.   Leaders

A support group leader(s) is responsible for maintaining the structure of the group and keeping the group on topic. Leaders also set up meetings and clean up afterwards. They must be a bit assertive; if you are not comfortable being assertive, look for this quality in a co-leader.

11.   Asking others to join the group – be sensitive to their concerns

Because of the stigma associated with depression, people are sometimes resistant to join a support group. They don’t know what to expect.  “Will other people attending the group know me?  Will this be embarrassing? Would this really help?”  Then there are others who have attended other depression support group meetings and found them lacking.  One of the most common things I hear is that many of the folks who attend these meeting aren’t working, are on disability and aren’t planning to go back into the work force.  Let me be clear on this point: in no way am I criticizing people who are in this situation.  In fact, I feel deep compassion for them.  But for people who are in the workforce or those temporarily out of it who want to get back in, it isn’t always good fit.  Be aware and sensitive to this issue. If I sense that people would like to come to the group, but are apprehensive, I meet them for coffee.  Believe me, it helps to reassure them. Maybe a perspective member might not be a good fit for your group. If so, be honest with them and refer them to another.

12.   Remember that it takes time to start and keep a group going

I have known other people who have felt the passion and courage to start groups only to see them fizzle out because of a lack of members or organization.  That can be discouraging, no doubt.  When I first started the group, I’d worry about how many people would come.  For example, I’d be disappointed if 4 people came.  I somehow felt like a failure (why can’t I get more people to come?) or a big success if 15 came (“Wow, this is great.  People think this is important!”) But in the past seven years of running my group, I learned that numbers don’t count for much. It’s the quality and depth of sharing that counts.  Some of the best meetings I’ve attended have been with small numbers of people.  It allows more time for each person to share more details of their struggles that they otherwise may not been able to do in with a larger group setting because of time constraints.  Commit to keep the group going for at least one year.  It will have its ups and downs.  You need to be persistent. 

13.   Remember to stay on topic.

You’ll notice some participants drift into other topics like buying a new car, gossip or recent things in the news.  Help keep the group focused and on task.  It’s a depression support group, plain and simple.  The majority of people are there for that reason.  It’s simply not fair to others who need the support to listen to others who want to talk about things other than their depression-related issues.  If people want to talk about these issues, they can do so before or after the group.

14.   Be careful not to let someone dominate the talk

This is a common and tricky problem I’ve had to deal with over the years.  We address this in the opening ritual, but people need to be reminded of this for the benefit of the group.  An individual member may sometimes need a bit more time to talk than usual.  That’s okay. But if it becomes a chronic issue, take the person aside after the group and gently address it with them.

15.   Share resources

Many people who come to groups have read books about depression that have “spoken” to them in a meaningful way.  I’ve shared my own favorites in a blog, Dan’s Top Ten Depression Books.  Group members can also create such a list and distribute it.  From time to time, my group has also come up with a list of recommended therapists and psychiatrists in our area.  Again, a very helpful thing for people who don’t have one or are thinking of switching (a very common issue).

16.   Hire a therapist to attend the group

Our group has hired a therapist to facilitate our meetings during different times in our history.  It’s absolutely not necessary to have successful group, but may be helpful.  How to find one?  Send out a letter to local counselors that you’re group is looking for one.  How do you pay for it?  Take up a collection from the group.  For example, if you have 10 people (an ideal number of members for a support group, by the way, is 8 to 10 folks), ask that they each kick in $10 per group meeting to pay for the therapist.  The psychologist in our group didn’t talk much during the meeting, except at the end.  He would sum up some of the themes he heard and offer a few helpful tips and observations.  I thought this worked well and was a real benefit to the group. You can also ask a local therapist to volunteer their time to this worthy effort.

17.   Get trained as a peer support person.

There are different organizations that offer such training.  Check out DBSA. Attend other depression support groups in your community to see how they run it.

18.   Commit to confidentiality.

Make sure everyone in your group understands that what’s shared in the support group stays within the group. I can’t stress this issue strongly enough.  People need to feel safe.  Without that, the group just won’t succeed.

Ritual Opening for a depression support group

Welcome to the {insert group name] support group for people coping with depression.

Depression is a bio-psychosocial phenomenon meaning that it affects people in their biological, psychological, and social areas of daily function. Depression is a health problem that does not discriminate by gender, race, religion, occupation, or intellectual ability. It is not a moral weakness any more than asthma, diabetes, or hypertension are. But, similar to these other illnesses, depression is highly treatable and can be managed effectively. Interpersonal support is an important part of depression management.

This group is anonymous and confidential. Here is a forum to share your stresses and your experiences in coping with depression. We ask that group members suspend judgment of others, refrain from direct advice giving, and allow adequate time for all participants to share their respective stories.

 We seek the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Have you ever taken part in a depression support group?  What have your experiences been?  Do you have any additions to this list that would help someone form a group?  Please share.

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