Skip to main content

Why lawyers are prone to suicide

By Patrick Krill
updated 10:15 AM EST, Tue January 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Patrick Krill: Lawyers are reviled and revered, guardian of liberties and butt of jokes
  • But they are also much more likely to commit suicide than general population
  • Lawyers prone to depression; job, personality traits make coping with it difficult
  • It's up to the profession to acknowledge the problem and provide support

Editor's note: Patrick R. Krill is an attorney, clinician and board-certified, licensed alcohol and drug counselor. He is the director of the Legal Professionals Program at Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center.

(CNN) -- If you accept that all human life has value, and that suicide is a cruel and devastating end, you might conclude that a segment of society whose members are three to six times more likely to kill themselves might deserve some extra attention and resources. Makes sense, right? Of course.

Now, does your answer change at all if I tell you that the group I'm referring to is lawyers? Be honest. And no, this isn't the setup for a punch line.

Patrick R. Krill
Patrick R. Krill

Sometimes revered and sometimes reviled, lawyers are both the guardians of your most precious liberties and the butts of your harshest jokes. Inhabiting the unique role of both hero and villain in our cultural imagination, lawyers play a key part in the proper functioning of society while also repelling any tendencies for people to feel sympathy or compassion toward us as human beings.

And the fact that we repel those tendencies is unfortunate, mostly because of one important thing we do differently from all but a few other professions: kill ourselves with shocking frequency. The propensity of attorneys to die at their own hands is a very grim and under-reported aspect of practicing law.

That was highlighted when an especially large number of Kentucky attorneys committed suicide last year. Suicide is a hazard so real that it is the third leading cause of death in the profession. By comparison, suicide is only the 10th leading cause of death in the general population.

So, why are lawyers far more prone to ending their own lives than almost everyone else? Part of the answer lies in their significantly heightened rates of depression and substance abuse. Studies have shown that lawyers are more than three times more likely to be depressed than others, and roughly twice as addicted to alcohol or other drugs as the rest of the population. A Johns Hopkins study found lawyers have the highest rate of depression of any profession. And, while not all people who are depressed commit suicide, a majority of those who commit suicide are depressed.

The propensity of attorneys to die at their own hands is a very grim and underreported aspect of practicing law.
Patrick Krill

Similarly, people who struggle with substance abuse are about six times more likely to kill themselves. These are discouraging numbers to be sure, and maybe the old wisecrack about hundreds of lawyers at the bottom of the ocean being "a good start" isn't as funny when we understand how many are actually drowning.

But what's behind those extreme rates of depression and substance abuse? That answer is less straightforward, but the rampant, multidimensional stress of the profession is certainly a factor. And not surprisingly, there are also some personality traits common among lawyers — self-reliance, ambition, perfectionism and competitiveness -- that aren't always consistent with healthy coping skills and the type of emotional elasticity necessary to endure the unrelenting pressures and unexpected disappointments that a career in the law can bring.

Why are some lawyers killing themselves?

Despite whatever preconceptions or judgments many people may have of lawyers and the work they do, there are some facts about the practice of law that can't be denied: It's tougher than most people think and frequently less fulfilling than they would ever believe.

The psychologist Rollo May famously defined depression as "the inability to construct a future." And, unfortunately for many attorneys who define their existence by a hard-earned membership in the legal profession, the powerful despair they experience when that profession overwhelms and demoralizes them doesn't leave them much psychological real estate for constructing a future they can believe in.

Not a future where the practice of law will be what they hoped for, not a future where their lives will have balance and joy, and not a future where their relationships will bring fulfillment and their stresses will seem manageable. They just can't see it. Unable or unwilling to extract themselves from the psychological, financial and personal mire they never would have expected years of hard work and discipline to bring them, many lawyers then find themselves sinking into a funk, a bottle or a grave.

If you're asking yourself whether you're supposed to now feel bad for lawyers -- as unnatural an emotional response as many people could ever have toward our profession -- the answer is no. Ultimately it is up to the profession itself to tackle this problem openly and honestly, and to increase its efforts and funding to reduce the staggering rates of depression and substance abuse that leave so many lawyers, judges and law students reeling or dead.

But perhaps you can feel more aware and compassionate. In turn, that awareness and compassion will spread and those who might be at the end of their rope will be encouraged to reach out and ask for help -- help that just might take the death sentence off the table.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick Krill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT