Stressed, lonely, overworked: What a new study tells us about lawyers’ suicide risk

(Reuters) – Lawyers do not have a monopoly on stress. It’s an element of almost every job, from waiters to police officers to surgeons.

But a new study suggests that the stress of being a lawyer, especially when combined with other factors, can uniquely impact mental well-being.

As my colleague Karen Sloan reported, attorneys are twice as likely as other US adults to consider suicide, according to the study, which was based on a survey of nearly 2,000 attorneys in California and the District of Columbia. More ominously, attorneys who report experiencing high levels of stress are 22 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than their low-stress peers.

Think about it: 22 times more likely to consider suicide.

Why are so many stressed-out lawyers so desperate?

I reached out to one of the study’s authors, Patrick Krill, who noted that “there is something about us as lawyers and the way we work” that can take a heavy toll on mental health.

The main culprits are well known: long hours, tight deadlines, complex tasks and demanding clients – not to mention the inherently controversial nature of the work itself.

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Law is not, and perhaps never was, a relaxed pursuit. Still, Krill said what he’s seeing now he believes is “unsustainable.”

Krill, an attorney who advises legal employers on health issues, partnered with Justin Anker of the University of Minnesota Department of Psychiatry on the study, which was published in the journal Healthcare.

Randomly selected attorney members in DC and California were asked in an email poll, “How often have you had the thought that it would be better to be dead than to hurt yourself?”

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Those who said “several days,” “more than half the days,” or “almost every day” were classified as proponents of suicidal tendencies.

About 4.2% of all US adults fall into this category, compared to 8.5% of attorneys.

However, within the legal cohort, a portrait of those most at risk is emerging.

According to the study, male lawyers are twice as likely to consider suicide – a “surprising” result since the researchers also found that female lawyers had more risk factors, such as anxiety, depression and hazardous drinking.

You are lonely too. The study suggests that such feelings of social isolation may be related to the demanding nature of the profession and its often competitive and individualistic culture.

In addition, lawyers who are overly committed to their work are also more likely to think of self-harm.

The potential ill effects come when attorneys allow their work “to play too big a role in their lives,” Krill said, and at the end of the day are unable to disconnect.

This is exactly what law firms reward, of course.

In addition, lawyers are often reluctant to acknowledge or address mental health issues.

Lawyers tend to see themselves as confident, high-productivity professionals, Krill said. Rather than admit feelings of despair, some find it easier “to suppress those thoughts than to say, ‘I’m not fine; I fight.'”

It also doesn’t help that 37 prosecutors and the District of Columbia ask applicants about their mental health status as part of their character and fitness assessments. For Krill, this reinforces the idea that mental health issues should be hidden.

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While statistical analysis found that a lawyer’s ancestry was not in itself a predictor of suicidality, the raw survey data showed that lawyers who identified as Asian, followed by Black and Latino, were more likely to have thoughts of self-harm than those who identified as Caucasian/White – Numbers that I believe reflect the lack of diversity in the legal profession and the struggles it causes among minority lawyers.

Even the unhappiest of lawyers tend to be young. The survey data showed that attorneys under the age of 30 were the most likely to report suicidal thoughts, while those over 61 were the least likely to do so, although age alone was also not a predictor of suicidal tendencies.

However, it points to an alarming broader trend. The US Centers for Disease Control reported Monday that nearly one in three teenage girls has seriously considered attempting suicide — nearly 60% more than a decade ago.

For Krill, these findings underscore the urgency for law firms and other legal employers to respond now with policies aimed at reducing stress, encouraging social interaction, and encouraging attorneys to set and maintain work and life boundaries.

“If you look five or 10 years later, people entering the profession appear to have significantly worse mental health,” Krill said. “I don’t expect the need to address these issues to diminish.”

Help is available for lawyers who are feeling depressed or suicidal:

Lifeline for suicide and crises: dial 988

ABA Directory of Attorney Assistance Programs by State

Online peer support group Lawyers Depression Project

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Jenna Greene

Thomson Reuters

Jenna Greene writes about the legal business and culture, taking a comprehensive look at industry trends, the faces behind the cases and whimsical drama in the courtroom. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high profile litigation, she is based in Northern California. Reach Greene at [email protected]