State bar confronts profession's issues with depression

Statistics show suicide more prevalent among lawyers than other professions

By Catherine Martin
The Daily Record Newswire

ST. LOUIS - Larry Altman still remembers the last time he saw his friend. His friend, an attorney, was in a "fantastic mood," happy-go-lucky, the same guy he had known for years.

The next day, Altman got the call that his friend had committed suicide.

"What I learned later was what was going on was he was saying goodbye to people," Altman, a Kansas City attorney, said of the last time he saw his friend.

Fifteen years ago, Altman said, he didn't see any signs that indicated his friend was in trouble, but there may have been signs there he would have recognized today. Now, having made a pledge to do what he could to prevent others from suffering the same fate, he's leading a new Missouri Bar commission called Lawyers Helping Lawyers.

"I don't want to lose anybody else," Altman said.

Higher odds

After prominent Springfield attorney Wallace Squibb committed suicide a year ago, the topic of suicide was on the minds of many Missouri lawyers, including those that started the joint commission. Squibb, a former member of the bar's Board of Governors, shot himself Dec. 19, 2013, after a deputy served him with a writ regarding money allegedly missing from a trust account.

Altman said Squibb's death, along with news coverage of the suicides of about a dozen lawyers in Kentucky between 2010 and 2013, started the conversation that led to the commission's formation.

Other states have started looking more at the risk of suicide among lawyers recently, including Kentucky, after the recent incidents brought the issue into the spotlight.

In Missouri last week, the suicide of St. Louis attorney Paul Passante brought the issue to the forefront again.

Numbers also show suicide is more prevalent among lawyers than those in other professions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked lawyers fourth in the proportion of suicides by profession. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than those in other professions, according to the American Psychological Association.

"We thought perhaps we need a taskforce to come together, we need to do more for our colleagues that have some mental health issues," Altman said. Altman speculated that attorneys suffer disproportionately from depression because they tend to be "helpers."

"The helpers sometimes forget to take care of themselves," he said. "As lawyers, we're advocates, and sometimes we forget we're human and fail to seek help when we need it."

"As lawyers, we're advocates, and sometimes we forget we're human and fail to seek help when we need it." - attorney Larry Altman

Gary Burger Jr., a St. Louis lawyer who works with the bar's Missouri Lawyers Assistance Program, said it could be because the type of people that chose to become lawyers are often high-achieving and competitive, and the stress and pressure of being successful in the legal business could add to issues like depression and anxiety. Tom Casey, who also works with MOLAP, agreed that high stress work environments could be a factor.

Long-time problem

Whatever the reason, the problems aren't new. Casey said he doesn't have any reason to believe depression among lawyers is any more prevalent than it was 40 years ago.

So why has it taken so long for a commission to form to address the issue?

Burger said it's not that the bar has ignored the problems of suicide among lawyers; it does have MOLAP, a counseling program run through the bar. But they could do more.

"It's not that they don't [address it]. It's a hard issue to talk about," he said. "There is great leadership in the bar that supports that, but I do think there should be more done."

One possible reason the issues weren't discussed as much in the past is the societal stigma that comes with problems like depression, suicide or substance abuse.

Casey said society in general is more willing to talk about it, which may be why lawyers are too.

"Some of the stigma that those conditions once carried has been reduced," he said.

But the stigma is still palpable in conversations, even with Altman, who declined to disclose the name of his friend who had committed suicide.

Burger said the new commission is a good step in dealing with the problem more.

"Lawyers helping lawyers is a good idea. It gets the bar to talk about it. It gets the bar to deal with real problems, which is important," he said.

Reviewing all options

So far, the taskforce has met five times. Last month, Altman presented a list of recommendation to the Board of Governors.

The recommendations included increasing the presence of MOLAP, by setting up a table at at least 12 bar events each year. The group also wants to encourage law firms to adopt a policy that provides guidance for assisting impaired lawyers and make a one-hour presentation to judges during their judicial conference.

Altman said judges see many attorneys a day and can recognize possible problems.

"We need their assistance. We need them to help us identify attorneys that might have some issues," he said.

The board will discuss the recommendations again at its spring meeting, and in the meantime Missouri Bar President Reuben Shelton said the group is discussing the options presented.

"I think they're all very good," he said. "The question is, how do we best implement them? Some will cost money, and we have to look at that as well."

Altman said the commission asked for between $200,000 and $250,000 for the first year, and he doesn't know what it would cost beyond that. Expenses outlined in the proposal include an increase in MOLAP's staff, travel costs for the team and the cost obtaining third-party vendors to serve as triage specialists.

The bar has already started some of the recommendations that don't come with a hefty price tag, Shelton said, like having a table with information at events, although he said that could be expanded. Other suggestions could be done right away, if the board choses to do so, but some might take a longer-term approach, like adding additional resources at the bar center.

"All of them, we will take a strong look at and see if we can get them done," he said.

Another taskforce recommendation is offering an ethics CLE on attorney wellness. Some states have gone even further and made CLE programs focused on mental health or wellness mandatory.

Altman said he's still not sure if mandatory sessions would be more effective. The positive, he said, is that it would make lawyers listen to the presentation, but the flipside is that if lawyers don't want help, they won't listen even if they have to attend.

Shelton also said he wasn't sure yet about making such CLE's mandatory but said "nothing is ruled out at this point."

Published: Mon, Dec 15, 2014