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New York State Bar Assoc Lawyer Assistance Program


Hard Times are NOT to Die For:  What to Do When Someone is Suicidal

By Patricia Spataro, Lawyer Assistance Program Director


The president of the National Association of Bankruptcy Attorneys, Carey Ebert, issued a warning to members that the challenges of being a bankruptcy attorney during these hard times can be overwhelming.  The increase in caseload and the intense level of client distress is taking its toll.  Several recent suicides among this group of lawyers are the most tragic.


Suicide is the most preventable cause of death.  Many who make the decision to take their own life communicate their intent to those around them.  “I will kill myself if I lose my job” is the type of direct communication that is easier to recognize but very intimidating to confront… so much so that many don’t.  A person who becomes quiet and withdrawn may be communicating suicidal plans, but these warning signs are often missed altogether by an unknowing person. 


The devastation and guilt when someone close to you completes the act of suicide is profound and life as you knew it is gone forever.  Wishing you knew then what you know now can be haunting.


At the Lawyer Assistance Program Volunteer Training participants learned to recognize the signs, ask the question “do you have thoughts of suicide?” persuade the person to get help, and refer the person to help.  Question, Persuade, and Refer or succinctly called QPR is a suicide prevention program that was designed exactly as CPR was; to empower people with life saving skills and sparing them, the non professional, from standing by helplessly while someone dies waiting for the professional to arrive and intervene.   


Though simple, the act of questioning, persuading, and referring is not easy.  It takes courage.  We believe that possessing the knowledge of what to do helps facilitate the courage. 


Suicide is a complex problem.  Though there are many theories, we have no hard data on whom or why someone might take their own life. All we can go on are the situational, behavioral, and verbal signs and it is best to err on the side of being overly cautious rather than not cautious enough.


Generally speaking, lawyers tend to be perfectionists.  This propensity toward perfectionism can be at the core of problems such as depression and alcoholism.  People suffering from depression and alcoholism are at high risk for suicide.  Attorneys experience depression and alcoholism more than the general population and therefore are also at risk for suicide.


Perfectionists may be highly motivated and successful, but success doesn’t make a person immune to suicide. People who have accomplished a great deal, earn a good income, and have great potential are vulnerable to suicide.  Success is hard to hang onto.  Setbacks are inevitable and can lead to depression and an increased risk of suicide.


The majority of people who die by suicide are successful professionals. Many are corporate leaders, executives, doctors, and lawyers.  They are often isolated by their positions of status and stigma and shame can render them unwilling to ask for help for fear they will be perceived as weak or worse…“crazy”.  


There are many people who are in a position to intervene including partners, colleagues, best friends, and family members… You may be one of them… HOPE BEGINS WITH YOU!


Suicide can become “the” only exit strategy when:


  • There is intense stress in the workplace including client complaints, decrease in work productivity, and despair about the future.
  • The person is experiencing severe emotional pain.
  • There is a precipitating event such as the person is about to be fired, arrested, disciplined, or exposed in a humiliating and public way.
  • There is an investigation that might expose immoral or improper professional conduct.
  • The person feels trapped and unable to escape from what he or she sees as an unacceptable and intolerable situation.
  • Clinical depression, unusual or heavy drinking is present.
  • The person has a strong personal identity with a job, a career, or a profession


To help save the life of a person who is considering suicide, we must act boldly.  Suicidal people are ambivalent up to the moment of death and often directly or indirectly communicate their suicidal plans to someone close to them.  We must use the power of our personal relationship and influence with the suicidal person. The goal is to get the person we care about to a professional for evaluation and possible treatment as soon as possible.


Learning and applying the QPR strategies can save a life.  The greatest fear we have is that if the person isn’t thinking about suicide and we bring it up it might now be considered.  This is one of the most important myths to dispel.  We also worry we may insult the person and damage the relationship.  The reality is that reaching out to help could be the greatest act of kindness and compassion… it says I care and I am concerned.


When the signs of depression, despair, hopelessness, withdrawal are seen alone or in conjunction with situational difficulties like loss of job, divorce, or public embarrassment don’t hesitate to intervene – not for even one day!  It is better to risk a relationship than a life.


As stated earlier, suicide is complex; it is each person’s responsibility to learn all you can about recognizing the signs and intervening.  It is unthinkable to image that we wouldn’t do everything in our power to help a person choking, having a stroke or heart attack… let’s start right now to make it just as unthinkable not to help someone who is suicidal.


Call Patricia Spataro, certified QPR trainer, at 800.255.0569 for information on suicide prevention and intervention.