The Texas Prosecutor, July–August 2018

Lawyers are at special risk for suicide

Albert was a detail-oriented perfectionist.1 He always had been, and that’s why he was so successful in law school. When I first met him—I’m going to be honest—he struck me as overly anxious. He was a law student interning at the District Attorney’s Office during his last semester. He planned to stay on through the bar exam and await the results, hoping to land a job as a prosecutor once he passed the bar. He asked more questions than anyone I’d ever heard, and he did not seem terribly satisfied with the answers—he remained anxious. He was a friendly guy, though, and he was married and had a toddler.
    Al had started drinking quite a bit in law school to control the stress. It was easy to get into that habit because the law school hosted happy hours every Friday in the courtyard with six kegs of beer. That was just a warm-up for the 1Ls, who went out to the bars afterward. By his third year of law school, Al and most of his class had graduated to drinking at home alone every night.
    Al passed the bar and was hired on at the DA’s office. A few years in, he was a very successful trial attorney. He had actually never lost a trial and was on a 7-of-7 winning streak. But Al had a very tough caseload (he worked on child pornography cases) and viewed those images day in and day out for four years. Such a caseload left him with uncontrollable feelings of helplessness, rage, and guilt. Al began to see himself as the only person who could help these children, yet he felt guilty about the numbness he had eventually developed toward the images. He had to prioritize the cases somehow, and he loathed himself for seeing some victims’ horrific circumstances as “not that bad.” His perfectionism gave him an over-developed sense of control, so when cases didn’t go as planned (e.g., he didn’t get the sentence he wanted), he blamed himself and considered himself a failure.
    Al stopped hanging out with colleagues outside of work, was having at least six drinks a night, and stayed up late playing video games. He was willing to sacrifice sleep and healthy habits to meet the unrealistic expectation of never losing a case, but it came at a great cost. He was also taking medication for anxiety and depression and had become addicted to Xanax, but we didn’t find that out until later.
    At one point, Albert was preparing for a big jury trial, and as it was looming, he suffered from feelings of inadequacy, fatigue, and muscle tension; he had difficulty concentrating and sleeping; and he was plagued with worry and a sense of impending danger. Then his wife had a miscarriage, which he took very hard.
    The big trial was set for a Monday morning, but Al was not at the office early that day to prepare, as he would’ve normally been, nor was he in court when trial was ready to start. Our office got the call around 10:00 a.m. from Al’s mother-in-law that he had died by suicide the day before. He was only 27 years old.
    The next day, the DA’s office provided counselors for two one-hour group sessions. In these sessions, we could express our emotions over losing Al and ask questions about mental health and suicide. It was a great resource provided to the other staff and attorneys in a time of great need. We learned that the warning signs we saw in Albert were real and that we might have been able to help him (if he would have accepted it).
    The purpose of this article is to educate prosecutor office staff—especially attorneys, who have a higher risk of suicide than non-lawyers—on the risk factors and warning signs of mental illness, as well as what professional help is available to those with alcohol or substance-abuse problems. I first became involved in mental health and suicide prevention awareness in 2009, when my family lost my brother, Donald William Elster