SC Lawyer, January 2012, #2. The Lawyers' Epidemic: Depression, Suicide and Substance Abuse.

Author:By C. Stuart Mauney

South Carolina BAR Journal


SC Lawyer, January 2012, #2.

The Lawyers' Epidemic: Depression, Suicide and Substance Abuse

South Carolina LawyerJanuary 2012The Lawyers' Epidemic: Depression, Suicide and Substance AbuseBy C. Stuart Mauney In a recent period of 18 months, six lawyers died by suicide in South Carolina. Within the last year, three South Carolina lawyers died by suicide within seven months. A student at the Charleston School of Law recently committed suicide. Around that same time, a student at the USC School of Law died of alcohol poisoning.

The South Carolina Bar formed the Health and Education for Legal Professionals (HELP) Task Force in November 2008 to shine a bright light on these problems. The HELP mission was to raise awareness and promote prevention of substance abuse, mental illness and suicide within the legal profession. The HELP mission was designed to complement the two confidential services already in place for its members.

Lawyers Helping Lawyers (LHL) assists lawyers who suffer from substance abuse and mental illness. LHL can also help members who have family members or staff with such issues. Robert Turnbull and Beth Padgett are Bar staff members who lead LHL. They can be reached toll free at (866) 545-9590. Members of the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Committee comprise a support network of recovering judges and lawyers who assist in carrying the recovery message. LHL provides referral services, peer support, monitoring services and education.

LifeFocus Counseling Services provides up to five free hours of intervention counseling for lawyers experiencing emotional or stress-related issues. The toll-free number is (866) 726-5252 for a referral to a counselor near the caller.

HELP complemented the work of LHL by educating lawyers, law firms, law students and judges about the services available through LHL. HELP also promoted a better understanding of mental health issues in the legal profession. HELP set as a goal saving lives and restoring integrity to our profession by bringing an end to the epidemic of depression, suicide and substance abuse among lawyers.

Prevalence of depression

Statistics abound about the prevalence of depression found in the legal profession. Some studies estimate that of the one million lawyers in this country, approximately 250,000 suffer from some form of depression. Daniel Lukasik, Depression is the Law's Occupational Hazard, The Complete Lawyer (Mar. 3, 2008). A quality of life survey by the North Carolina Bar Association in 1991 revealed that almost 26 percent of respondents exhibited symptoms of clinical depression and almost 12 percent said they contemplated suicide at least once a month. Michael J. Sweeney, The Devastation of Depression (research conducted by Campbell University).

As to law students, according to studies conducted by Dr. Andrew Benjamin, et. al., in the 1980s and 1990s, depression among law students approximated that of the general population before law school (about 9-10 percent). However, it rose to 32 percent by the end of the first year of law school, and rocketed to an amazing 40 percent by the third year, never to return to pre-law school levels. Susan Daicoff, Depression is Prevalent Among Lawyers-But Not Inevitable, The Complete Lawyer (Dec. 2, 2008).

Symptoms of depression

Clinical depression is more extreme and more prolonged than the blues or the ups and downs experienced by all. The lows are lower, and the periods spent in these emotional depths are longer. Depression in its most severe forms can render people unable to carry out the day-to-day necessities of life and can lead to suicide. Greg Miller, The Depressed Lawyer, 70 Texas Bar Journal 218 (Mar. 2007).

At least several of the following symptoms must be present during the same two-week period in order to meet the diagnostic criteria for a major depressive episode:

* Depressed mood

* Loss of interest or pleasure * Change in appetite or weight * Change in sleeping patterns * Fatigue or loss of energy * Speaking and/or moving with unusual speed or slowness * Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt * Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness * Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide * Suicide attempts The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Am. Psychiatric Ass'n 4th ed.) (1994).

Causes of depression include functional abnormalities or chemical imbalances in the brain, heredity, biological factors and environmental influences (job, marriage, family, economic and social influences). Medical research outlines the biological and physiological factors involved in mental disorders, including depression.

Effective treatment for depression is available for 90 percent of those with a depressive illness. The most important component of a treatment protocol is information, with accurate...

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