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.
“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.