- Lawyers with higher stress levels are significantly more likely to contemplate suicide.
- Lawyers are prone to mental health issues strongly linked to the suicide risk, such as depression and anxiety.
- Overcommitment is often rewarded in law, but lawyers who overcommit are more likely to think about suicide.
Most research on the link between occupation and suicide focuses on health professions. However, many of the highest rates of suicides occur in other occupations, such as construction workers and lawyers (Peterson et al., 2018).
Many lawyers who contemplate suicide report their work is detrimental to their mental health and drives increases in their substance and/or alcohol use. Some report they have considered leaving their profession because of the burnout and mental health problems it has caused (Krill et al., 2023).
Among the general population, an average of 4.3 percent of American adults have contemplated suicide (Ivey-Stephenson et al., 2022). That means they have reported thinking that they would be better off dead or hurting themselves either “several days,” “more than half the days,” or “nearly every day” of the week. For lawyers, that statistic is more than double.
An estimated 8.5 percent of lawyers have contemplated suicide (Krill et al., 2023).
Why is there a jump in suicidal thinking among lawyers, and what can we do about it? Well, science has some answers.
They Are Stressed
Lawyers face high expectations. They lead vulnerable clients through difficult times, often juggling emotional or aggressive outbursts from clients. They handle cases involving divorce, child custody, robbery, assault, injury, rape, murder, crisis, accidents, bankruptcy, property loss, immigration, deportation, and injustice. They must work long hours to tackle complex legal cases within tight deadlines, all while remaining professional and satisfying their clients.
With stressors like these, it is perhaps no surprise that suicides by lawyers are 91 percent more likely to be attributed to job stress than other suicides (Stack & Bowman, 2023).
Stress, the perception that one’s life or work is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overwhelming, is a known predictor of suicide risk (Cole et al., 2015). Lawyers with high stress levels are 22 times more likely to contemplate suicide than those with low perceived stress, and lawyers with intermediate stress levels are 5.5 times more likely to contemplate suicide (Krill et al., 2023).
They Are Depressed
Lawyers are prone to mental health issues strongly linked with an increased risk of suicide, including depression, anxiety, stress, and substance abuse (Krill et al., 2023). In a nationwide study of lawyers in the United States, 28 percent reported experiencing depression, 19 percent reported experiencing anxiety, 23 percent reported stress, 21 percent reported experiencing alcohol abuse, and 11 percent reported experiencing drug abuse (Krill et al., 2016).
Lawyers with mental health conditions and/or current substance disorders are significantly more likely to have suicidal thoughts and more severe suicidality (Krill et al., 2023). Lawyers with at least one diagnosed mental illness are 1.8 times more likely to contemplate suicide than those with no history of mental illness (Krill et al., 2023).
Overcommitment involves a desire to control and an inability to disconnect from work. It is a coping mechanism for high-stress environments that rely on approval, esteem, and attention to detail (Volanti et al., 2018). Signs include constantly thinking about work and being unable to relax from work, which can lead to burnout, exhaustion, cynicism, and psychological distress (Krill et al., 2023).
Overcommitment is often valued and rewarded in law, starting with grades in law school and ending in financial rewards and honors. However, while motivating, external validation does not add to psychological well-being or happiness (Krill et al., 2023), and overcommitment to work can distract lawyers from fulfilling activities and relationships that improve well-being. In other words, stress, depression, over-commitment, and loneliness all contribute to each other.
Lawyers with a high level of work overcommitment are 2.2 times more likely to contemplate suicide compared to those who are not overcommitted to their work. Lawyers with an intermediate level of work overcommitment are 1.6 times more likely to contemplate suicide (Krill et al., 2023).
They Are Lonely
Loneliness, the perception that one’s social needs are not being met, is a known suicide risk factor (Motillon-Toudic et al., 2022). Lawyers also often report feeling lonely or socially isolated (Ash & Huang, 2022). This may seem counterintuitive for a profession that requires daily communication and interactions, but lawyers hold positions of authority.
As authority figures, lawyers' communications are often one-way: They provide support and knowledge to someone else, often making them feel seen and heard in times of crisis, but they do not get the luxury of support in return. That is the nature of the job. However, when there is no work-life balance, lawyers do not have the time to develop and maintain meaningful connections and relationships that would buffer them from loneliness.
Law is also a highly competitive profession, so that might impede lawyers’ opportunities to form meaningful connections with their peers (Achor et al., 2018).
Lawyers who are lonely are 2.8 times more likely to contemplate suicide than lawyers who are not (Krill et al., 2023).
But They Are Hopeful
While stress, loneliness, overcommitment, and a history of mental health issues increase lawyers’ risk of suicide, we can do things to improve their lives and well-being.
On the systemic level, changing the atmosphere of the legal profession might help eliminate some of the causes of stress, overcommitment, anxiety, and depression. Providing realistic timelines, clarifying expectations, and monitoring workload would be good places to start. However, these changes must be adopted by both companies and employees to be effective. It is easy to say, “I deserve family time,” but it is harder to say, “I won’t be able to get to that until Monday,” when clients, court dates, or bosses are looming.
Taking that time is important though because work-life conflict and working 60-plus hours per week are risk factors for depression. Individuals must reinforce their boundaries just as much as law practices must respect and encourage them. This might require a cultural shift within the law to include competition and collaboration.
It might also require reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Many lawyers fear that admitting they are mentally struggling will have professional repercussions. This prevents them from seeking needed help. Seminars and policies that increase awareness of the risks of being overcommitted to work and overvaluing extrinsic rewards and that promote healthy coping mechanisms and intrinsic markers of success can help shift lawyers’ workplace culture.
On the individual level, providing lawyers with the tools they need to enhance their stress tolerance might help them manage the inevitable stresses of a demanding profession. Mindfulness training, for example, is an evidence-based practice for improving mood, reducing stress, and alleviating anxiety (Nielsen & Minda, 2021).
Lawyers can also implement healthy practices such as participating in hobbies outside work, leaving work at work, and setting time aside for connection. All these habits can foster a sense of identity and self-worth outside of work. Regular social interactions with peers and loved ones are needed to feel belonging, which is associated with improved well-being (Kreiger & Sheldon, 2015).
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Achor, S., Rosen Kellerman, G., Reece, A., & Robichaux, A. (2018, April 19). America’s loneliest workers, according to research. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/03/americas-loneliest-workers-according-to-research
Ash, O., & Huang, P. H. (2022). Loneliness in COVID-19, life, and law. Health Matrix, 32, 55. https://scholar.google.com/scholar_lookup?title=Loneliness+in+COVID-19,+Life,+and+Law&author=Ash,+O.&author=Huang,+P.H.&publication_year=2022&journal=Health+Matrix&volume=32&pages=55&doi=10.2139/ssrn.3793900
Cole, A. B., Wingate, L. R., Tucker, R. P., Rhoades-Kerswill, S., O’Keefe, V. M., & Hollingsworth, D. W. (2015). The differential impact of brooding and reflection on the relationship between perceived stress and suicide ideation. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 170-173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.04.013
Ivey-Stephenson, A. Z., Crosby, A. E., Hoenig, J. M., Gyawali, S., Parker-Lee, E., & Hedden, S. L. (2022). Suicidal thoughts and behaviors among adults aged ≥18 years — United States, 2015–2019. MMWR Surveillance Summaries, 71(1), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.15585%2Fmmwr.ss7101a1
Kreiger, L. S., & Sheldon, K. M. (2015). What makes lawyers happy: A data-driven prescription to redefine professional success. George Washington Law Review, 83, 554. https://scholar.google.com/scholar_lookup?title=What+Makes+Lawyers+Happy?+A+Data-Driven+Prescription+to+Redefine+Professional+Success&author=Krieger,+L.S.&author=Sheldon,+K.M.&publication_year=2015&journal=Georg.+Wash.+Law+Rev.&volume=83&pages=554
Krill, P. R., Johnson, R., & Albert, L. (2016). The prevalence of substance use and other mental health concerns among American attorneys. Journal of Addiction Medicine 10(1), 46-52. https://doi.org/10.1097/adm.0000000000000182
Krill, P. R., Thomas, H. M., Kramer, M. R., Degeneffe, N., & Anker, J. J. (2023). Stressed, lonely, and overcommitted: Predictors of lawyer suicide risk. Healthcare, 11(4), 536. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare11040536
Motillon-Toudic, C., Walter, M., Seguin, M., Carrier, J.-D., Berrougeiguet, S., & Lemey, C. (2022). Social isolation and suicide risk: Literature review and perspectives. European Psychiatry, 65(1), E65. https://doi.org/10.1192/j.eurpsy.2022.2320
Nielsen, E. G., & Minda, J. P. (2021). The mindful lawyer: Investigating the effects of two online mindfulness programs on self-reported well-being in the legal profession. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 63(12), e871-e882. https://doi.org/10.1097/jom.0000000000002393
Peterson, C., Stone, D. M., Marsh, S. M., Schumacher, P. K., Tiesman, H. M., McIntosh, W. L., Lokey, C. N., Trudeau, A.-M. T., Bartholow, B., & Lui F. (2018). Suicide rates by major occupational group — 17 states, 2012 and 2015. MMWR Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 67, 1253–1260. http://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6745a1
Stack, S., & Bowman, B. A. (2023). Suicide among lawyers: Role of job problems. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 53(2), 312-319. https://doi.org/10.1111/sltb.12945
Volanti, J. M., Mnatsakanova, A., Andrew, M. E., Allison, P., Gu, J. K., & Fekedulegn, D. ( 2018). Effort–reward imbalance and overcommitment at work: Associations with police burnout. Police Quarterly, 21(4), 440–460. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098611118774764