Mental Health Study -Issue of Suicide and Living Your Life in Technicolor
The North Carolina Bar Association has told me that in 2008, North Carolina averaged one lawyer suicide per month for a known total of thirteen people for the year. Other states have similar situations. In recent months, I have repeatedly learned from participants in CLE seminars on Ethics and Professionalism that many lawyers have known other lawyers who have committed suicide or considered it in the past. Indeed, a recent publication of the American Law Journal had as it cover story the suicide of a Washington, D.C. lawyer and a partner with Kilpatrick Stockton, after the lawyer learned he was being let go by the law firm, due in part to the down economy.
In my initial request for approval by the Bar on Mental Health study, I stated that I would in large measure tell my own personal story with depression, the diagnosis that I had, the fact that I went through intensive and long lasting psycho-therapy and even a stay at Duke University Hospital in the psychiatric wing. That is the story that I continue to tell and I believe it is helpful to lawyers in that I discuss the symptoms of depression, particularly as it affects lawyers and how to deal and cope with it. I continue to wish to present that program on a regular basis because many lawyers suffer from depression in the high stress business of practicing law.
A number of years ago, Mel Wright, Executive Director of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism asked me to develop a program on the issue of suicide because, as he said, I considered it twice and did not do it. So this new Course proposal is to seek permission and Bar approval not only for an indepth discussion of suicide but also the larger picture of how lawyers, and indeed anyone, can better keep from going there.
What are the thought patterns that someone goes through, and how difficult does a life have to be to consider suicide? What about the lawyer in trouble with the Bar? What about the lawyer who is being let go by his partners, or someone who simply cannot any longer make enough money? What about the normal stresses of being a lawyer?
In the first portion of this one hour program, I propose to tell in detail my own thought processes as I considered suicide and then ultimately why I rejected it completely, and the role that both my lawyers and psychiatrist played in my decision. They were a key part of that. I considered suicide because I faced, on a very broad scale, all of these questions I have just stated.
In the second half of the program, I use a broader brush to tell lawyers that the key path to good and sound mental health, and the avoidance of suicidal thoughts, is “living your life in technicolor and not in black and white”. That is a phrase suggested to me by Dr. Jean Spaulding, my doctor from years ago. She asked me a question about how that applied to me as well as the one about when was the “last time I was carefree and happy”. I propose to discuss my own personal journey along with giving insights I have learned from others, including my doctor, my lawyers, my family and friends and even lawyers I have met during the years I have done Continuing Education programs.
I believe the relatively happy person does not put himself or herself at risk. The most popular undergraduate course in the history of Harvard University is a present one on the subject of “happiness”. That is what people, including lawyers want to be. Someone who is happy is probably a far more ethical lawyer and less inclined to violate Rules of Ethics and to get into serious trouble. I have learned how to have good mental health. Though Dr. Spaulding said to me and others I would never be able to function in the world without psychiatric assistance and medication, I have not seen her on a professional basis for some time and have not taken any medication for years. How did this happen? I want to tell people in these programs about how I learned to succeed in that way, and how they can as well.
Basically, I propose a substantive discussion of mental health as it specifically relates to these issues, and believe it is a serious enough problem to warrant a completely different hour of mental health study.