Two lawyer assistance programs, TLAP and LCL of PA, recently released an important video encouraging everyone in the legal profession to help save lives by asking how a colleague is doing anytime we notice they might be struggling.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
The moving new video (embedded below) shares the stories of individuals affected by suicide in the legal profession, including lawyers who have lost loved ones to suicide and lawyers who have had suicide attempts. The compilation was produced by Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program and Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania, lawyer assistance programs, like LCL | Mass LOMAP here in Massachusetts. LAPs have grown in each state structure and services vary by state, and always offer free and confidential support for individuals who are struggling, as well as for individuals who notice a colleague is struggling. The ABA’s directory of LAPs across the US is available here, and those in Massachusetts can find how to schedule with us here.
As the video illustrates, the best advice is simply to ask the open-ended question, ‘How are you?’ anytime we notice a colleague might be struggling. A new study from Stanford found that expressing an observation about someone else’s emotional state, e.g. “You look upset,” helps build trust (a hat tip for finding and sharing to the Virginia Lawyers’ Wellness Initiative!). We need to notice changes in mood or behavior in our peers even with busy workloads, and it can help to make time in advance to familiarize ourselves with warning signs particularly for suicide, which include the following from LCL of Minnesota:
- Increased use of alcohol and other controlled substances
- Impulsiveness or high-risk behavior
- Loss of engagement or sense of humor
- Deterioration in functioning
And as the video discusses, asking about suicide specifically is the only way to know when someone is need of more urgent (and more sustained) support — and it doesn’t increase the likelihood of it happening. It’s common to hesitate to ask the direct question, whether in fear of sparking the idea or otherwise, but it’s often necessary, and the alternative is a heartbreaking one. The acronym ‘ALGEE’ from MentalHealthFirstAid.org can help us remember important action steps: Assess for risk; Listen nonjudgmentally; Give reassurance and information; Encourage appropriate professional help; Encourage self-help and other support; find more guidance on each step in this helpful article from the Virginia JLAP. As we prepare to ask about suicide directly, LCL MN offers the following guidance:
If you observe these disturbing behaviors, ask directly, but ask in a way that is true to you. “Have you thought of harming yourself? Are you in a lot of pain? Do you feel unsafe? Are you thinking of suicide?” Never ask in a way that suggests you need a “no” answer, such as “you’re not thinking about suicide, are you?” Asking directly allows the person to speak freely. If he says “no” and you are still concerned, rephrase it and ask again. Give a reason why you asked – the person who said no may be ready to change her answer if you ask again and show you care.
With well-being in the legal profession falling as of early 2021 and attorneys of color suffering the most, we all need to look out for our colleagues. Startling rates of contemplating suicide were highlighted in a recent article published by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism’s 2Civility blog:
Notably, roughly 31% of Black lawyers said they have contemplated suicide during their legal career. This is a significant increase from the approximately 23% of Hispanic and Latino attorneys, 20% of Asian attorneys, and almost 19.4% of white attorneys who reported the same tendencies.
We admire the individuals speaking in the video and beyond, including Gavin Alexander, a leader in the Massachusetts legal profession, who has shared his experience in a guest series on Dan Lukasik’s Lawyers with Depression blog. Gavin’s story captures why this tragedy is so common, and also how preventable it is, but only if we talk about it.
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