Last year, the Texas and Pennsylvania Lawyers Assistance Programs created a video that shows how lawyers and others have been affected by suicide. Some of the speakers in the video have attempted suicide; some have family members who have taken their own lives; and some know lawyers or judges who have died from suicide. The video shows the aftermath of suicide and how it affects family members, friends and other survivors. But, to me, the most powerful point the video makes is how important it is just to ask someone if they are ok.
In the video, a lawyer speaks about a friend who attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge when he was 17, but he survived, and he lived to tell his story. The day he decided to die, he was sobbing. He saw his father, while crying, and he hugged his father for the last time, or so he thought. He got on a bus—still crying—and nobody asked him if he was ok. He got to the bridge, still sobbing, and instead of asking him if he was ok, a woman asked him to take her picture. He took her picture, and then he jumped. He said that if one person would have asked him if he was ok, he would not have jumped. The second he jumped, he regretted it. He said that the saddest thing in the four seconds it took him to hit the water was that he was going to die and his family did not know that he wanted to live.
Stop minding your own business
Why was it that not one person asked this young man if he was ok? I believe there are several reasons why we do not stop and ask. We were taught to mind our own business. We do not want to get involved. We are too busy. We are afraid of legal implications. We do not know how to help or what to say. It is imperative that we all learn how to ask this question and let others know there is help available and point them in the right direction. Asking a person “Are you ok?” shows the person that you cared enough to ask. Most people do not want to die; they just want their pain to end, but they do not know how to get help or are afraid to ask for help. By asking this simple question, you could save a life.
If a person opens up to you and tells you what is wrong, just listen. Do not try to fix their problems. Sometimes a stressed/depressed/anxious person just needs to let it out. Listen and ask how you can help. It’s ok to ask the person if they are having suicidal thoughts. Some people believe that if they ask this question, that they are putting the idea of suicide in the other person’s mind, but that is not true. It makes the person pause for a moment to think about the severity of their state of mind. “If someone asks me if I’m ok, then I must not be doing ok because they noticed that I’m not being myself.”
Even if a person says they have thought about it, but would never go through with it, share resources with them. Let them know of the aftermath of suicide and how many people’s lives would be affected by their death. Tell them about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (dial 988), which is available 24/7. Have them call the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program, which helps legal professionals in a confidential manner.
Be aware of these signs of suicide. If you see a person exhibiting any of these behaviors, it is time to ask if they are ok.
Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
Sleeping too little or too much
Withdrawing or isolating themselves
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
Extreme mood swings
Examples of what legal professionals might say if they are contemplating suicide:
“I hate being a judge. Sometimes I just want to jump off a building.”
“Nothing will ever change for me. I will always be a failure.”
“My family/law practice will be much better off without me. I’m such a burden.”
“I have no reason to live.”
“I don’t like being a magistrate, but I’m trapped and I cannot change it.”
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma that comes along with people who have mental health issues, which leads to many negative effects for a person who is contemplating suicide. Mental health stigma occurs when someone views you in a negative way because you have an illness that is thought to be a disadvantage. Stigma can lead to discrimination. Harmful effects of stigma can lead to:
A person refusing to seek help or treatment
Family, friends, co-workers or others who don’t understand
And the belief that they will never succeed at certain challenges or that they cannot improve their situation
Fortunately, people are going public with their stories so that others can learn that you can recover from mental health challenges, even suicidal thoughts. Hopefully this helps break the stigma of mental health disorders.
As judges and lawyers, our job is to help people. The next time you see a co-worker, friend, family member or stranger in distress, I encourage you to ask if they are ok. Your question might lead them to seek help so they can live to tell their stories, which, in turn, will help others know that help is available and that they can recover from mental health issues.
Suicide crisis line
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program
The Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) helps lawyers, judges and law students cope with the stresses of the legal profession. We have saved hundreds of lives and families. We treat depression, mental health disorders, burnout, substance use disorders, anxiety, gambling disorders, and more. We know that it is difficult to ask for help when you are struggling, but asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. We also understand your concerns about privacy, which is why OLAP is governed by strong rules of confidentiality.
Judicial Advisory Group
The Judicial Advisory Group (JAG) is a peer-based confidential assistance group that helps judges and magistrates with personal and professional issues. For more information, go to www.ohiolap.org/judges or call (800) 348-4343.
Just Ask: How We Must Stop Minding Our Own Business in the Legal World
A collaborative project between Texas and Pennsylvania LAP Directors, Chris Ritter and Laurie Besden, the film was created to help provide the legal world with essential information about how to get help for oneself or colleagues.