In 2016, life appeared to be good for Ryan Griffith, a health and safety receiverships lawyer in Berkeley.
A former college athlete, he'd finished in the top 10% of his law school class. He was named Young Lawyer of the Year by the Solano County Bar Association, and he loved the law firm where he worked. His personal life was good, too. He was happily married and had lots of friends. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, his world turned dark: He ended up attempting suicide and was hospitalized.
"I sincerely thought I was the only lawyer that this had happened to," Griffith, who now gives talks to attorneys and law students about mental health issues, said in an interview Monday.
Griffith's story was not as unique as he had thought. Attorneys are twice as likely as the general public to have thoughts of suicide, according to a study published Monday in the journal Healthcare.
"The legal profession has known that lawyers are disproportionately predisposed to suicidal thoughts, but we've been largely relying on assumptions and anecdotes to understand why," said Patrick Krill, one of the leaders of the study. "With this research, however, we now have the beginnings of a data-driven formula for successfully mitigating risk and ultimately saving lives."
The researchers looked at a random sample of 2,000 attorneys in California and the District of Columbia. Among their findings:
• Perceived stress was the number one predictor of suicidality; compared to lawyers with low stress, those with high stress were 22 times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, and lawyers with intermediate levels of stress were 5.5 times more likely.
• Lonely lawyers were nearly three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, and those who are highly over committed to work more than twice as likely.
• Male lawyers were twice as likely to contemplate suicide, a notable difference from the general population where women experience higher levels of suicidal ideation.
• A significantly greater proportion of lawyers who contemplated suicide indicated that working in the legal profession was detrimental to their mental health and contributed to their substance use and feelings of burnout.
• The profile of a lawyer with the highest risk for suicide was a lonely or socially isolated male with a high level of unmanageable stress, who is overly committed to their work and may have a history of mental health problems.
Griffith, who detailed his ordeal in an article published in the Daily Journal last October, has tried to understand what triggered his crisis.
"I think law school gets you so wrapped up in doing everything right that you are scared of failure," he said Monday. "The profession is not open to vulnerability."
In last year's article, he recounted how the darkness descended upon him "without warning or reason."
"Too petrified" to work and too scared not to, he started arriving at the office at 5 in the morning and staring at a blank computer screen until 7 or 8 at night without doing anything, he wrote.
Once his law firm discovered what was going on, they tried to help him but he was too far gone. "I truly do not remember if I quit the firm, because I felt incompetent to practice law, or they respectfully asked me to leave," he wrote.
Michelle Harmon runs the mandatory division of the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) at the State Bar of California which, among other things, provides resources for attorneys who are in mental distress. Roughly half the people they help report mental health issues; roughly a quarter of them report only having mental health issues, without other problems such as substance abuse.
While most have been mandated to report to the program as part of the State Bar's disciplinary process, voluntary participants can be a part of the monitoring program or participate in other ways, such as two free individual or career counseling sessions, and be assessed by a licensed clinician who may recommend other resources.
"One of the common misconceptions is that we are only here for discipline," Harmon said. Another is that anything a lawyer tells them will be reported for possible discipline. But the program operates under strict confidentiality rules and is housed in a separate building from other State Bar staff, she said.
"We don't just go around sharing information. So if they come to us it's not going to go anywhere else," she said, except for a duty to report to law enforcement if the person may be in immediate danger to themselves or others.
LAP's licensed clinicians refer attorneys in mental distress to qualified resources for help, but perhaps just as important, they run group therapy sessions where lawyers meet to discuss the issues they are experiencing. Some lawyers have found those sessions so helpful that they've been attending for a decade or more, Harmon said
"One of the reasons these groups are so powerful is you are meeting people like you," Harmon said, referring to attorneys who are highly educated and driven.
The California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar worked with the researchers to conduct the study that was led by Krill, a mental health and well-being expert specializing in attorneys, and Justin J. Anker from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota.
"Stressed, Lonely, and Overcommitted: Predictors of Lawyer Suicide Risk," is the third published paper since CLA and the D.C. Bar began participating with the researchers. The other papers are: "Stress, Drink, Leave: An Examination of Gender-Specific Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems and Attrition Among Licensed Attorneys," published in May 2021 in the journal PLOS ONE; and "People, Professionals, and Profit Centers: The Connection Between Lawyer Well-Being and Employer Values," published June 3 in the journal Behavioral Sciences.
Jeremy Evans, president of CLA, said the organization got involved because mental distress and suicide among lawyers is so high.
"Anybody who practices law knows this is a tough business," he said, pointing to billable hour expectations and the demands of representing people in high stakes situations. "What we do is admirable but also there is a need to take a step back and find a balance," he said.
Evans, a sole practitioner at California Sports Lawyer in Los Angeles and Newport Beach, noted that most lawyers in California work alone or in small firms. "That presents an issue," he said. "Who are your mentors? Who can you talk to?"
Sara Rief, an attorney at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Layla Khamoushian, an immigration attorney in Santa Monica, lead CLA's health and wellness committee. Among other things, they are trying to move networking events away from alcohol-centered happy hours and toward healthier activities such as hikes and yoga sessions. Through initiatives like this, CLA wants to "bring light to the fact that there is a [mental health] problem" in the legal community, Evans said.
Griffith said being more aware of the prevalence of mental distress among attorneys would have helped once he started to spiral into despair. The profession has done a good job of calling attention to substance abuse issues among attorneys and providing resources for help, he said, but less so for those experiencing mental health problems.
Knowing that many lawyers experience these issues would have helped a lot, he said.
Griffith said he was surprised to meet another lawyer hospitalized in the same facility as he was. "I talked to him, and it was nice," he said. "I remember the doctors saying, 'You are far from the first lawyer to be hospitalized for this.'"
The State Bar Lawyer Assistance Program can be reached at 877-527-4435 or LAP@calbar.ca.gov. Or, to get free confidential, 24/7 support for anxiety, text "HOME" to the Crisis Text Line, which is 741741. Dial 988 to reach the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
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