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.

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