Time Magazine posted today a video on suicide rates among professionals in the U.S. What caught my attention was the headline, “Lawyers are committing suicide at an alarming rate.” This is because my dad was in the field of law. The two-minute video segment explains that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers, partially due to the stress that comes with being in a career surrounded by conflict. They deal with many dark life and death issues every day. I know my dad took his work very personally and would feel conflicted over decisions he had to make and the potential outcomes. In fact, Oklahoma saw at least one lawyer die by suicide every month in 2006 and a handful of other states continue to see elevated rates. One woman shared that lawyers tend to operate in a state of high drama and crisis at all times. In an effort to help curb this unfortunate trend, some states have now instituted a mental health component to the Bar Association license reviews.
What also surprised me was their focus on lawyers, who have the fourth-highest rate of suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Ahead of them are Dentists, Pharmacists and Physicians. This again struck a chord with me because several friends and loved ones are physicians. We have talked at length about how their risk of depression and suicide is under-reported and neglected. People often think they are superhuman, here only to follow an oath to help others and with no right to complain because of their salaries. (I can’t think of a profession that faces more stressful life and death issues…)
In any of these named professions, those who speak up about stress or depression run the risk of losing a license and their salaries – what a quandary to face. The option to simply live through the depression, or worse, isn’t too hard to understand. As the family breadwinners, I can guess that, like my dad, they felt the need to simply continue providing for a family versus speaking up. I was really bothered by the majority of comments I read in response to this video on Facebook, which included highly-disturbing lawyer jokes and other snide remarks. Many people think these individuals should all stop whining because they are after big money or otherwise living comfortably or scoundrels. However, what they don’t see behind the scenes of these professions is the mountain of debt from their extended educations that the salaries don’t cover for decades, the “always-on” stress and the pressure to do right by their patients, clients and society “or else.” It’s actually not uncommon for these individuals to face routine death threats for not awarding people the money they wanted or the pain pills they demanded. One year as a child, we had to have police detectives live with us for a week or two over Christmas following our every step after receiving one such threat. It’s really not that glamorous after all. I know struggles are experienced by those in professions not immediately highlighted in this piece – including those in our armed forces and public service positions.
In my opinion, everyone should have a right to express their experiences with anxiety, depression and stress and receive options for treatment without public criticism or concern over losing their jobs. I am absolutely appalled that so many people could make jokes after this video was posted. How will we ever grow as a society and reduce the stigma of depression or rates of suicide when people are publicly shamed like this? It just sickens me and I am infuriated as I write this. I feel very fortunate that in my marketing agency job, I am able to openly share that I have struggled with depression after losing my dad to suicide and applauded for exploring options for healing, like counseling. I don’t think the same could be said by others.
Lastly, I know that being a lawyer (or a doctor) isn’t a cause of suicide. And, it’s not the reason my dad died this way. But, what this video does tell me is that I am not alone and neither was my dad in facing the ongoing stress of his career – something I do still like to be reassured by. Directionally, it tells me that even though he was an individual with his own thoughts, there is a sea of people who are unfortunately united in this struggle. As I continue to put together the pieces of our family’s puzzle, this helps.
Small strides have been made in the effort to reduce stigmas in our society, but we need to do more, as survivors, with help from politicians and mental health organizations to make it acceptable for ANYONE, regardless of their status in society, to be able to ask for and receive help without negative repercussions. I don’t have the answers, but I hope that even shedding light on the negative outcomes of these jokes, societal assumptions and fall-outs for professionals who raise their voices will be acknowledged and eventually minimized.