The Legal Profession Has A Suicide Problem And Silence Is Deadly

Not long ago, I keynoted the Cuban American Bar Association Annual Judicial Luncheon in Miami. They said it was the first time they had brought in a speaker such as myself as the event was usually about election cycle stump speeches. They wanted this event to be different for very personal reasons.

The  Cuban and Miami legal community had recently lost a well known and respected colleague with the suicide of Miami lawyer,  Ervin Gonzalez.  Not long after that, the death of Miami federal prosecutor Beranton J. Whisenant was ruled a suicide. Two tragedies among a profession with a suicide rate in the top five of all professions.  I was almost one of those grim statistics.

July 2005. A dark room. Table, desk, chairs. I’m with a staff psychiatrist of the Green Oaks Psychiatric Facility in Dallas, Texas. My brothers, Mark and Jeff, are sitting at the table across from me. I have a vague recollection of my younger brother rousing me from my bed. My .45 automatic lying on my nightstand.

The residuals of cocaine, Xanax, and Jack Daniels are still coursing through my veins. Questions from the attending psychiatrist pierce my fog and anger like tracer rounds. “What drugs have you taken? How are you feeling? Do you want to hurt yourself? “

In the back of my mind, what’s left of the lawyer takes over. I know that my family can’t commit me, but he can. Proceed with caution. I don’t mention that I had been “practicing” sticking the barrel of the gun in my mouth and dry-firing the gun.

Ripped back to reality. Voices in the room. The doctor is talking to me again. When was the last time I used cocaine? I’m pretty sure it has been recently, since it was all over the room when my brothers showed up. I had become the consummate liar in hiding the obvious cocaine habit and drinking problem from my family.

More questions. Do I think I need help? Will I go to rehab? Sure, whatever will get me out of here? I lash out again. They have no right to do this. I yell across the table. “You have no right to control my life!  I am an adult!  Mind your own business!”  They quietly let me rant.

Blaming them for the darkness is so much easier than seeing the light. The doctor is asking calm, focused questions, to ascertain whether I am a danger to myself. At times I am calm in my answers. At times I am crying, angry at him, then at my brothers. Quit asking the same questions! I know your game! Quit treating me like an idiot!

An hour has passed. The room is getting brighter. The love and calm of my brothers soothes me. Quiets me, softens my edges. It’s always been there, but I wasn’t present enough to sense it. I was thinking only of myself: My next high. My next drink. Without the drugs, what am I going to see in the mirror each morning? The thought terrifies me. My brothers calm me, and I begin to focus on my love for my family. Arms are around me. Holding me. I begin to feel the love penetrating my shell. They are not the enemy.  Should I go to rehab? What about twelve-step? I’m still on the defensive, but at least for the moment I can listen. Have to grab those moments. They don’t come often.

Sitting in that room during my first of two trips to a psychiatric facility seems so long ago.  Today  I am approaching 11 years in long term recovery. I still deal with clinical depression and take medication daily. I see a psychiatrist weekly. I am also a lawyer. I am part of profession with alarmingly high depression rates.  As I often write about, there is also the serious issue of problem drinking in the profession. Both have a strong correlation with suicide.  I’ve been there. I get it. I talk to many in the profession weekly who are currently struggling. Some have contemplated suicide. I ask them what they are afraid of in seeking help. What’s holding them back from taking that first step forward towards the light.  It’s almost always about loss. Loss of license. Loss of job. Loss of family. Interestingly however, the fear of loss is generally attached to disclosure of the problem and not the possible consequences of the problem itself. That is what we know as “stigma”.   A problem that cuts across demographics but is particularly powerful in the legal profession. We are strong. We are hard chargers. We are “thinkers” who can problem solve our way out of any situation without disclosure. We are not vulnerable.

I am here to tell you that that emotional vulnerability is a good thing in taking that first step to get help. Reaching out is not weakness, it’s courage. Asking questions as a friend or family member is not intrusive, it’s compassionate.

September is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. Be vulnerable. Be compassionate. Ask questions. Provide resources. Learn what your State Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) has to offer. Learn what your local bar association has to offer. Does your law firm have an employee assistance program?  What is your law firm doing to empower  talking, compassion and empathy without stigma?  If you are a solo practitioner, don’t isolate.  People want to listen. Talking is healing. Silence can be deadly.


Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption .  A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at brian@addictedlawyer.com.

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