Berks County Bar Association The Berks Barrister Fall/Winter 2019 - 38

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Closing Argument

TAPPING OUR SOUL
By Donald F. Smith, Jr., Esquire

T

wenty-two years ago, my favorite
uncle hung himself from a barn
rafter on the farm that had
been in the family for several
generations. He was in the throes of a
divorce, and a property appraiser was to
arrive in a day or two.
As the only family member with a law
degree, should I have taken the initiative to
monitor the divorce proceedings to support
him? Clearly, I was missing signs he was
suffering serious depression over the marital
split and the potential sale of the family
farm. I simply stuck my head in the sand,
ostrich style.
A few years later, a client I was
representing in a workers' compensation
matter took his own life. It came
just a few days after my meeting
with him over his concerns of being
followed. He was convinced that
private investigators, hired by the
workers' compensation insurance
carrier, were following him by
car every day as well as watching
him from airplanes flying over his
property. I explained that, while
insurance companies will conduct
surveillance of claimants, they would never
pay for that much coverage. I realized he
was being paranoid and tried to reassure
him, knowing he was already treating with
a psychologist. In retrospect, could I have
done more? But what?
Prompted by these two experiences,
suicide prevention has been a concern of
mine, particularly when it comes to the
profession I love.
According to the American
Psychological Association, lawyers are 3.6
times more likely than non-lawyers to
suffer a depression identified as the most
likely trigger for suicide. Like my uncle,
treatment is frequently not sought due to
the stigma attached to mental illness.
I recently read of Dan Lukasik in a
blog by Tom Foster, CEO of Foster Web
Marketing. A New York attorney, Lukasik

battled depression for years but "was
finally able to fight back and regain some
semblance of a normal life." He now wants
to help other attorneys and has created a
website, lawyerswithdepression.com.
Lukasik says about lawyers, "The stigma
is huge with mental illness and depression
in this country. You're supposed to be
a problem solver; you're supposed to be
superman or superwoman. You're not
supposed to have problems."
Unfortunately, a mental illness is not
viewed the same as a physical one. Given
the culture's negative attitude toward
mental conditions, the feeling of shame
prevents those who should seek treatment,
to seek it. For lawyers, it is even worse.

The American Bar Association established
a National Task Force on Lawyer Well
Being, which published its findings in
a report titled The Path to Lawyer WellBeing: Practical Recommendations for
Positive Change. The report notes: "It is
well-documented that lawyers have high
rates of suicide. The reasons for this are
complicated and varied, but [includes]
the reluctance of attorneys to ask for help
when they need it..." The factors for that
reluctance, disclosed by its research, include
the fear that the attorney will be discredited
if clients or colleagues learn of his or her
treatment as well as the fear that the license
to practice law could be affected.
Among the Task Force findings:
"Research shows that the most effective
way to reduce stigma is through direct
contact with someone who has personally

experienced a relevant disorder. Ideally, this
person should be a practicing lawyer...in
order to create a personal connection that
lends credibility and combats stigma." It
is asking a lot for attorneys to step out of
the shadows, but maybe Lukasik can help.
In 2017, he started a coaching practice for
lawyers at Yourdepressioncoach.com. He
claims to have coached and mentored 150
lawyers who were struggling with a variety
of mental health and career issues.
We know Berks County is not immune
to the tragedy of lawyer-suicide. I can
think of five local lawyers who died from
suicide in the last twenty years. Such a
sudden, unexpected death is a major loss to
the family, one for which there can be no
complete recovery. Likewise it is
a loss to friends, colleagues and
our profession. Mental illness
should not be fatal, and it should
never define one's life.
Changing the culture's
negative attitude needs to start
with our own community of
lawyers. I like to think the Berks
County Bar Association is our
profession's soul, its spirit and
essence. Let's tap our soul. The Task Force
recommends bar associations demonstrate
"we are not afraid of addressing this issue.
We need leaders to encourage dialogue
about suicide prevention." It suggests an
educational program on the signs and
symptoms of suicidal thinking.
I believe hosting a plenary session at a
future Bench-Bar Conference is the perfect
way to begin reducing the stigma by having
a discussion on recognizing a struggling
colleague or client and then by learning the
methods by which to help.
It's time we begin discussing mental
illness openly, as we would any physical
illness. It's time we end the ostrich
approach. May the soul of the profession
lead the way.

For those struggling, confidential help is available: Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (888-999-1941);
ruOKAY? (text 484-816-7865); SAM, Inc. (610-236-0530, option 9)
38 | Berks Barrister


http://www.berksbar.org http://www.lawyerswithdepression.com http://www.Yourdepressioncoach.com

Berks County Bar Association The Berks Barrister Fall/Winter 2019

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