Who’s Your Neighbor? Our Moral Obligation to Discuss Mental Health with Our Peers

BY ROBIN FRAZER CLARK

You don’t have to be all that religious, or even members of a certain faith, to be familiar with the parable of The Good Samaritan. In fact, in Georgia, we often refer to our duty to render aid under O.C.G.A. § 40-6-270 as “The Good Samaritan” statute. In the Good Samaritan parable, a “legal scholar” sets up the famous story by asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with the story of a man on the side of the road who had been attacked and beaten by robbers. Two men, a priest and a Levite, passed by the injured man and did not help him. A third man, the Samaritan, stopped and rendered aid, bandaged the man’s wounds, put him on his own donkey and took him to the nearest inn and then even paid the tab for a night’s stay at the inn. The question was then asked of the legal scholar: “Which of the three was a neighbor?” The answer: “The one who showed mercy.” And then came the call to action: “Go and do likewise.”

I am writing this as a call to action for you, my fellow trial lawyers, to show mercy to your colleagues, and perhaps even yourself, regarding mental health. I believe we are each other’s “neighbors,” and we have a moral obligation to each other, and to our col-leagues and even adversaries, to offer help. We just saw our 15th World Suicide Prevention Day, which was September 10, 2018. According to the World Health Organization, 800,000 people die by suicide every year. For every person who completes a suicide, 20 or more may attempt to end their lives.

The adversarial nature of our profession, where one attorney succeeds at another’s expense, and the emotional challenge of assuming other people’s problems can escalate stress to unmanageable levels and, if left unchecked, can lead to other, larger mental health issues. Moreover, the individuals drawn to trial practice are generally high achievers who tend to hide any signs of weakness. Even in our modern society, mental illness is still stigmatized as the result of moral weakness or personal flaws. However, mental illness is not different than any other form of illness; it is not the result of personal failure, but of chemical changes in the body. Due to the stigma attached to mental illness, many individuals never admit their personal struggles or seek help. However, individuals suffering from mental illness, just like individuals stricken with cancer, cannot be cured without professional help. Lawyers, in particular, whose mental acumen and judgment are integral to their performance, reputation and ultimate success, are especially reluctant to seek the medical treatment they need, and which can often restore them to complete health. As advocates for others, we must become advocates for ourselves and the members of our profession who are struggling with these issues.

Consider these statistics:

• In 2012, the U.S. legal industry had the 11th highest suicide rate among occupations at 18.8 per 100,000, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• 19% of lawyers reported mild or higher levels or anxiety, 20.6% problem drinking, 28% mild or worse depression and 11.5% suicidal thoughts according to a 2016 report by the ABA and Hazeldon Institute.

• Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally.

• The suicide rate in the United States has risen 25% in the last 20 years.

• The Centers for Disease Control reports that 121 Americans die by suicide each day, and 93 of those people are men. Research tells us that the suicide rate for girls between 2007 and 2015 has doubled.

• 40% of transgender adults have made a suicide attempt, and 92% of those attempts occurred before the age of 25.

• The Surgeon General reports people of color, both adults and children, are less likely than their white counterparts to receive needed mental health care.

• Every day in America alone, 20 veterans die by suicide.

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Fortunately, there is an abundance of resources to help us with this mental health issue. Let’s start with the State Bar of Georgia, which provides six free psychological counseling sessions for members through its Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP). You can reach the LAP, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 800-327-9631. There is also a National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. I urge you to put both numbers in your mobile phone under “Suicide.” The music artist Logic wrote a song with the title “1-800-273-8255,” whose subject matter is the suicide prevention of gay teens. You can watch the video to “1-800-273-8255” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kb24RrHIbFk. I urge you to do that right now. It will move you to tears.

The State Bar also has begun a program called “Lawyers Helping Lawyers,” in which trained volunteers will serve as safety valves for their peers in the event of a crisis. These volunteers will direct lawyers in crisis to the proper outlet for assistance, whether that is emergency care in the event of attempted self-harm or simply lending a trained ear to a member who needs someone to listen. You can find out more about this new and much-needed program at https://www.gabar.org/committeesprogramssections/programs/lap/index.cfm. Keep in mind that these services are completely confidential. You will not be reported to the General Counsel’s office for seeking help. The important thing is that you get help now or that you help another get help.

I wish I had been aware of these resources, or even had known a little bit more about suicide, when one of my dear friends resorted to suicide in 2012, shortly after I was sworn in as State Bar President. His death, and the deaths of at least three other Georgia lawyers that year, sparked me to create the State Bar’s Suicide Prevention Campaign, “How To Save a Life.” We know as a result of those efforts, at least two Georgia Bar members who were very close to killing themselves got help instead. Our infant campaign had saved someone’s life. The name of our campaign came from The Fray’s song “How To Save a Life.” As the song says: “And I would have stayed up with you all night Had I known how to save a life.”

Interestingly, the first two lines of the lyrics lay out steps to save a life, the first being sitting down and talking. There is, unfortunately, a negative stigma attached to suicide. It is difficult for someone who is experiencing a downward spiral and who is feeling hopeless to discuss his or her desperation with another, even that person’s closest loved ones. Thus, it may fall incumbent on those around such a person to recognize the signs of despair and hopelessness and to intervene. This is where you must show mercy to your neighbor.

What should you say to someone you believe may be suicidal? First, it is clear that you should not try to convince him he doesn’t really mean it. Believe them. If someone tells you he thinks he may resort to suicide, do not say something like “no, you’re not,” or “no way.” If they are at the point of sharing with you their suicidal thoughts, they really are considering it or have already considered it.

According to Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, “A suicidal person might then feel a need to comfort the hurt person, provide a defense to the angry person, or retreat internally from the disbelieving person. The person might regret ever having shared in the first place that they were thinking of suicide. By saying “I’m glad you told me” – or something similar – you convey that you welcome and encourage disclosure of suicidal thoughts, and that you can handle it.”

Consider asking the suicidal person whether they have access to guns or drugs they could use to commit suicide. We now know that “means restriction,” preventing accessibility to the means to kill themselves, often is the only thing necessary to get a hopeless person past suicidal thoughts long enough to get mental health treatment. For example, the City of San Francisco is currently in the process of erecting a net on the San Francisco Bay Bridge for the sole purpose of preventing suicides. Bridge officials documented nearly 1,700 people leaping to their deaths since the landmark opened in 1937. As of the writing of this article, 14 people have jumped to their deaths from the Bay Bridge in 2018 alone. The net, at the cost of approximately $211 Million, comprising 385,000 square feet of marine-grade stainless steel — the equivalent of seven football fields — will be hung 20 feet below the bridge’s public walkway on steel cantilever brackets. Suicide experts are optimistic that the steel net will bring suicide deaths from jumping to zero. Simply restricting the means by which someone can kill themselves can lead to fewer suicides. Studies have shown that approximately 90% of attempters who survive a nonfatal attempt will not go on to die by suicide. Thus, if you can just keep a suicidal person away from lethal means, even for as little as 60 minutes, you may be able to thwart the suicide attempt.

Tell them “there is help…help is available.” Use those Suicide Hotline and Lawyers Assistance numbers above. Ask: “What can I do to help?” And probably most important of all, just listen. This is especially important if you don’t feel competent to handle the situation. Just listen until you can get the person to professional help.¹ If you just can’t think of the right thing to say, try the lyrics to Linkin Park’s “One More Light:”

Who cares if one more light goes out?

In the sky of a million stars

It flickers, flickers

Who cares when someone’s time runs out? If a moment is all we are

Or quicker, quicker

Who cares if one more light goes out?

Well I do

Well I do

What if that person is you? First, know that people care for you and want to help you. I can assure you that all around you are people who love you unconditionally and who are willing to do whatever needs to be done to help you get past this period of hopelessness until you get the professional help you need. Secondly, know that hope is real and your story is important and not finished yet. As my friend Javonne Hicks White has often said, this rough time you are going through is a semi-colon and not a period, and your story is not finished.

As I think of my friend who died by suicide in 2012, I wish I had known then all I know now. I wish I had had the opportunity to listen to him in his darkest moments and tell him things would get better, that help was available, that there was no mountain high enough and no valley wide enough to keep those who loved him from helping him and showing understanding.

We can only move forward now. This is a call to action: Who is your neighbor? The one who showed mercy. Now go and do likewise. ●

FOOTNOTES
1. For more insight on what to say, please read the accompanying piece by Michael Prudent, M.D.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robin Frazer Clark is the owner and founder of the law firm of Robin Frazer Clark, P.C. Ms. Clark has practiced law for twenty-nine years in Atlanta, Georgia, all as a trial lawyer in personal injury cases. She was recently invited and inducted into the International Society of Barristers and is a Past President of the State Bar of Georgia and the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association (GTLA).

 

PHOTO CREDIT: RAWPIXEL/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

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