The Suicide of a Lawyer with Depression — Ken’s Story

This is a guest blog by Cincinnati, Ohio attorney Tabitha M. Hochscheid, Esq., a partner at the law firm of Cohen, Todd, Kite & Stanford, LLC.  In this moving tribute, she writes about her law partner and dear friend Ken Jameson who committed suicide in May of 2011 after a battle with depression.

How well do we know those with whom we spend our work days with?  Is it possible to practice with someone and be there friend for years yet, not truly know that they are suffering from the depths of depression?  Being around other attorneys can give us the camaraderie and support we need to grow and build our practice.  But, often times, people keep their emotional health a secret and suffer from depression in silence.  By the time their colleagues realize what is going on, it can be too late to do anything about it. My partner and friend Ken Jameson was one of the people.  This is his story. 

Ken Jameson was, by outward appearances, successful, well liked, a loving husband and father, a friend to everyone and a dependable partner.  In fact, Ken was perhaps the epitome of the well liked, client centered and dedicated lawyer many of us envision when we think of how lawyers should behave. On the inside, however, Ken was struggling with the depression which eventually took his life.

I first met Ken in the summer of 2007 for breakfast to discuss my interest in joining Cohen, Todd, Kite and Stanford, LLC.  Ken was so easy to talk to and we instantly bonded because he too had left a small firm to find a place to grow and build his practice at Cohen, Todd, Kite & Stanford, LLC.   After I joined the firm in January 2008, Ken was always available to help and support me and we grew into friends, as well as, colleagues.

Like so many attorneys, Ken built a practice by creating a network of referrals, by giving his clients personal service and building long term relationships.  He was an attorney who facilitated resolutions and provided estate plans for people of all income levels.  Ken enjoyed his work.  After joining the firm himself in 2006, his practice thrived.  He became a trusted member of the firm and was on the management committee.   Ken shared is life outside of the office with his wife and best friend of 35 years, Betsy, and three adult children of whom he was most proud.

Ken was a universally well liked person.  He conducted himself professionally in such a way that he never seemed to have conflicts with others.  Ken cared about his firm family, he always checked in on people if they were sick or if he knew you were under stress.  He was active member in his Church.  Ken took care of his physical health by walking 5 miles a day, attending Pilates classes twice a week and maintaining a healthy diet.  By all outward appearances, Ken had success in his work, a happy home life and seemed content.

However, Ken had underlying mental health issues.  Like many attorneys he had trouble sleeping well.  Sleep is something that eludes most attorneys from time to time, but his type of sleep loss was chronic.   He would fall asleep and wake up in just a few hours and not be able to go back to sleep.  As long as I knew Ken, he had this issue.  He tried relaxation techniques to help him sleep better, he read books about stress management and attempted to delegate work to others.  Ultimately, Ken was a self confessed perfectionist and as such, had an inner critic who told him he had to be at work all the time.

Most lawyers struggle with the challenges of building a law practice, client demands and finding out how to have precious downtime.  Ken was doing all the right things, but he still wasn’t able to sleep.  In March of this year, he took time out of the office due to exhaustion.  He went to see his family doctor and was prescribed something for sleep.   He tried to come back to the office part time within a few weeks but was unable to sustain a schedule.   Ken represented to those of us at work that he was exhausted and initially did not tell others what was really going on.

In late April, he left the office again.  This time it was lack of sleep and a pinched a nerve in his back.   With this new medical issue, his depression worsened.  He spent sometime in the hospital to adjust to new medications and was scheduled for back surgery.  At this point, Ken began expressing worry about the office and felt as if he was letting the firm down.  Finally, Ken had back surgery for the pinched nerve in the middle of May.  After the surgery, Ken seemed to be doing better; everyone thought his return to the office was imminent.

Ken never returned to the office.  On Sunday, May 22, 2011, I received a call from our office manager.    She informed me that Ken’s depression had worsened and that he had taken his own life that morning.  As the next few days unfolded, details began to surface.  Ken underwent surgery on his back and in the days following the procedure, had checked in with people at the office and had seemed like his old self.  Ken also visited his mother and called his best friend.  All the while, Ken meticulously planned how to take his own life.

No one can answer the question of what was going through his head or why he was in such despair that he took his life.  The next five days were difficult at the office.  People were in a state of shock and disbelief.  His office door has remained open since Monday, May 23, 2011.   A memorial was held the Saturday following his death and it was standing room only.   Ken clearly touched the lives of thousands and his life was remembered in eulogies by his friends, his sister and his wife.  It was touching to see so many people who loved him, but the confusion as to what occurred actually increased for many.

Do you ever really know the people we practice law with?  Everyone at the office felt they had a personal relationship with Ken.  But, did anyone of us really know what was happening.  It is easy now to look back and see the signs of Ken’s illness (sleep deprivation, self criticism, feeling of letting others down, a search for answers and inability to allow others to help) and to wonder what if anything could have changed the outcome.  Time, however, does not give us this luxury and these questions will never be answered.  The best that can be done is to acknowledge that Ken’s illness, depression, can be deadly. 

It seems that our profession gives little in return for years of hard labor.  Learning a way to balance the demands of the business of being a lawyer with the need for downtime is essential to one’s mental and physical health.  Ken’s depression is an all too real downside of the practice of law.  His suicide is a tragedy to his family, our law firm and to the legal community.  He was one of the “good” guys and the profession needs more people like him.

For those of us left behind we struggle for understanding and to carry on in spite of the sadness we each feel.  Inevitably when speaking with others we are confronted with the questions of why?  Most people will ask the normal questions – were there money problems, did he have marital problems or health issues.  The answer to these questions is no and then people just cannot fathom why Ken chose to end his life.   I know in my heart that, as the minister said during his memorial, that Ken felt he was “fixing” the situation.  Ken was a fixer and this was his only choice left.

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.

Editors note — If you or someone you know suffers from depression and may have thought about suicide, visit the website of the national organization The American Association of Suicidology which contains great information, resources and how to get help. Lawyers can also contact  Lawyer Assistance Programs in their legal community.  To locate a program near you, visit the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs website.

Missing The Point


I recently read a tragic article about a young man at New York University who jumped to his death at the school’s library the other day.  One of the school’s spokesman said, “It’s a very competitive school that stresses people out. This sort of stuff happens at places like this”.  Sort of like a variation of “shit happens,” don’t you think?  I think this misses the point.

Some months ago, I wrote a blog article called, “The Death of a Law Student.” A brilliant young man – I’m sure much like the man who killed himself this past week – from Fordham Law School, David Nee, killed himself shortly before graduation.  While there may be no concrete answers to these tragedies, I feel that there are lessons to be learned.

First, when reporting these stories, there is usually no mention of the victim’s psychological history.  Neither is there in most news accounts of the 30,000 people who kill themselves every year in this country. 

That’s okay, because everyone has a right, as does their surviving family, to privacy.  Yet, I am sure if we were to know the whole story about these victims, we’d find that the majority of them had been suffering from depression for some time.  It wasn’t just “stress” or a “competitive academic environment” or a job loss which caused these deaths.  Perhaps, it was the latest in a series of emotional struggles; inner battles which that person fought valiantly but ultimately lost.

Second, I think these suicides underscore just how painful depression really is. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison (click here to read an interview with her), author of the recent and definitive book, Night Falls Fast, captures this sense of pain:

“Depression paralyzes all the otherwise vital forces that make us human, leaving instead a bleak, despairing, and deadened state.  It is barren, fatiguing, and agitated condition:  one without hope or capacity.  All bearings are lost; all things dark and drained of feeling.  The slippage into futility is first gradual, then utter. Thought, which is pervasively affected by depression as mood, is morbid and confused.  The body is bone-weary; there is no will; nothing that is not an effort, and nothing that at all seems worth it.  Sleep is fragmented, elusive, or all-consuming.  Like an unstable gas, an irritable exhaustion seeps into every crevice of thought and action.”

It is so painful, in fact, that some sufferers would prefer death to the ongoing agony of dealing with depression for the rest of their lives.  They often conclude that the noonday demon will be with them forever because of their inner battle and many failures to overcome or contain it which have been going on for some time.  Seeing no progress or hope on the horizon, people take their lives.  They experience a sort of “combat fatigue.”  They just can’t get out of their foxholes.  It feels like a dead end.

It’s very difficult for suicidal people to think about anything but the pain they’re in.  It is hard for them to connect to the very real pain – emotional devastation really – that loved ones would feel were they to take their life.  It’s as if they’ve become unmoored from all those who care about them and can only hear the siren of depression’s screaming wail.

I have been encouraged by others who have never experienced depression not to blog about the “grim topic” of suicide.  To me, that’s like saying let’s not talk about cigarette smoking and cancer. Untreated depression – like smoking packs of cigarettes everyday- can and often does lead to death.

In a real sense, I don’t give a damn what others think.  I want to reach those people out there who are suffering with depression and need someone, for Christ’s sake, to tell them that they understand and they’re not crazy to feel this way – even when it comes to having suicidal thoughts.

People who have suicidal thoughts should seek help right away.  Click here for immediate help, a toll free number and additional resources. There were plenty of times during my deepest depressions that I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore.  And there was no hiding place; nowhere that I could go to escape the clutches of depression. It covered me like a wet wool jacket as I stumbled through my days.  I always reached out for help and it saved me.

I think that people who experience depression are very brave people.  They must cope with something very painful.  Often, they don’t feel supported. Often, even when they are really supported, they don’t think so because their depression tells them otherwise.  It’s the voice of depression giving them the old screw job every which way they turn. 

Had we broken arms or legs, it would be so simple.  Loved ones would respond – maybe with flowers and chocolates and a puffing up of our favorite pillow – with love and care.

Sometime ago, I was trying to tell my mother and older sister about my depression.  They weren’t terribly moved and I got angry.  I said, “Maybe, if my head were falling off and I was spouting blood, you would believe me then.  You would give me a damn ounce of compassion.”  Looking back on it, I really don’t think they were being selfish bastards.  I think that they just didn’t know.  They didn’t have any frame of reference for what depression is or just how painful it can get.

This really doesn’t make it any easier for the depressed person.  They feel misunderstood at a time when they feel broken.  They’re reaching out to people beyond their therapist and psychiatrists and hoping to find friendly souls to assuage some of their anguish.  “Surely, people will understand me and care about this,” they often think.  But others are often frightened and minimize the problem:  “Just get the hell over it” they preach from the pulpit.  All the while, we stand there, crying inside and feel all alone in a veritable wasteland. 

A few times, in the worst of times, I even thought that maybe if I really did kill myself, then others would take my pain seriously.  But what a supreme tragedy such an act would be; it doesn’t solve anything and would only leaves a cosmic trail of pain in its wake forever.  I am so grateful that I never acted on any of these impulses.

We all want so much to connect at a time when depression has disconnected us.  We feel ourselves falling with no parachute.  Yesterday, I give a presentation to thirty undergraduate students on the topic of depression.  After my talk, I fielded many questions.  One young woman asked, “what do you think helped you most in getting over your depression?”  First, I said that I hadn’t gotten over it; I would have it – in some form- probably for the rest of my life.  I told her that it was contained and manageable, not cured.  I also said: “Probably, what helped me the most was time.” My depression and who I am has changed over time.  It didn’t kill me.  I survived and continue to work at it like a miner digging for coal.  I have learned creative and effective ways to cope with it.  It doesn’t rule my days – most of the time.

After hearing my answer, she exclaimed, “How brave you are.”  I responded: “I really don’t feel brave at all.  What I do feel is determined”.  I feel determined to fight my depression in all of its manifestations.  I feel determined to not let it define me and my life.

It is such determination, over time, that helps us recover from depression.  It gives us hope because we can actually witness ourselves not giving into our melancholy.   We don’t need to keep being victimized by it.  Sure, there will be days when it might get the better of us.  But, as the old Zen saying goes, “fall down seven times, get up eight.”  Keep getting up.

Suicide: The Death of a Law Student









I am Chair of the Committee to Assist Lawyers With Depression in Erie County.  Our committee is producing a documentary about depression in the legal profession.  It will be made available to Bar Associations, legal organizations and law schools around the country later this fall.  As part of this project, I headed off to New York City last week to interview some remarkable people.  One of them was Andrew Sparkler.

Andrew is a lawyer in Manhattan who graduated from Fordham Law School four years ago.  During his first year, he met a remarkable young man named David Nee.  David is shown in the photograph above sitting between two of his law school friends.

David went to one of the finest preparatory schools in the country, Princeton University and then to Fordham.  In my interview, Andrew told me that David was happy-go-lucky, the life of the party and always sought to make others feel comfortable.  He was brilliant, often not having to study for exams and still getting good, if not great, grades.  Something, however, changed during his Third Year of law school – at least in his friends eyes.   David would disappear for weeks on end.  When friends called him, he didn’t phone back.  When he finally showed up, he always had some sort of plausible excuse.

Shortly after law school graduation, while studying for the Bar exam, David Nee died by suicide.  In a note which he left, he said that he had been struggling with depression since he was fourteen years old.  This poor soul, I thought.  On the outside, he seemed so happy and carefree; on the inside, stuck in the dark world of depression.

Andrew Sparkler, his friends and family were devastated by David’s death.  Why didn’t they know he was depressed?  They decided to remember David by forming the David Dawes Nee II Foundation, a not for profit created to educate law students about depression and suicide.  What a noble effort that deserves our praise and support.

Dave (not his real name) is in his late fifties and had battled depression most of his life.  One day, he was driving his usual route to work.  As the car sped by him, all he could feel was the pain of his existence. He suddenly got off the Niagara Falls exit.  Once there, he parked his car.  He got out, took off his shoes, socks and watch.  He was methodical.  He was a good lawyer after all.  He thought of his wife and what his death would do to her.  He called his best friend who got him into a psychiatrist that afternoon where he was immediately put on antidepressants and went into counseling.

In her best-selling book, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, psychologist, Kay Redfield Jamison states:

“Suicide is a particularly awful way to die:  the mental suffering leading up to it is usually prolonged, intense, and unpalliated.  There is no morphine equivalent to ease the acute pain, and death not uncommonly is violent and grisly.”

Jamison, who also suffers from depression, notes that there is a suicide every 17 minutes in this country.  Identifying suicide as an often preventable medial and social problem, Jamison focus attention on those under 40 (suicides by those who are older often have different motivations or causes according to her book).  Citing research that suicide is most common in individuals with mental illness (diagnosed or not), particularly depression, she clearly describes the role of hormones and neurotransmitters as well as potential therapies.  Click here to hear an interview with Dr. Jamison on the Charlie Rose show.

Given that lawyers suffer from depression at a rate twice that of the national average and that the number one cause of death of middle aged lawyers is suicide, I believe that the legal profession must face this issue.  It isn’t as if lawyer suicide is a sometime sort of thing.  It happens a lot.  Even one is too many.

The point here is not to be depressing by addressing suicide.  The point is to speak up about just how dangerous depression is.  It just isn’t just a mental illness; it’s also a killer.

A recent news article reported that 27 million American are on antidepressants – a staggering figure.  Given the strong connection between depression and suicide, how can we avoid a frank discussion on this topic?

For more information, support and resources, check out the American Association of Suicidology.

I welcome everyone’s comments on this important topic.

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