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LAWYER SUICIDES: Profession’s Death Rate Is Rising

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(CNN) — Finis Price III was a successful Kentucky lawyer, a popular professor, and a sought after technology consultant. He also enjoyed a marriage so close that his wife was also his business partner. The good days ended abruptly when he jumped to his death in 2012.

“Finis was my best friend since we were kids,” Heather Price said of her husband, who taught at Chase Law School at Northern Kentucky University and managed a thriving practice until his death at age 37.

“I intentionally presented it as an accident. The taboo and stigma of suicide was too much for me to handle,” she said.

One by one, state by state, bar associations say the tally is rising: Lawyers are killing themselves. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided CNN with the latest available data on suicide deaths by profession. Lawyers ranked fourth when the proportion of suicides in that profession is compared to suicides in all other occupations in the study population (adjusted for age).They come right behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians.

Lawyers are also prone to depression, which the American Psychological Association, among others, identified as the most likely trigger for suicide. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.

Prominent lawyers keep turning up dead. They came one a month in Oklahoma around 2004. South Carolina lost six lawyers within 18 months before July 2008. Kentucky has seen 15 known lawyer suicides since 2010.

CNN’s review of 50 state bar associations found eight associations so concerned about suicides that they took measures to stop the deadly pattern. California, Montana, Iowa, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina added a “mental health” component to mandatory legal continuing education. Kentucky starts its annual conference on continuing education with a presentation on behaviors that increase the risk of suicide. So far, Kentucky has reached 7,000 lawyers.

“There are a lot of high stress professions,” said Yvette Hourigan, who runs the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program. “Being a physician has stress. However, when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don’t send another physician in to try to kill the patient. You know, they’re all on the same team trying to do one job. In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game.”

Still, there was no clear explanation for the rash of suicides in Kentucky, two of which came days apart. “It’s been primarily men,” said Kentucky Bar Association Executive Director John Meyers. “To a large degree, it’s been trial attorneys. The men are primarily middle-aged.”

The personal stories are heartbreaking for the lawyers and family members experiencing the loss. Ohio lawyer Eric Deters hired Harry Rankin, 58, while Rankin was being treated for depression in August 2012. Then Rankin hanged himself.

Aaron Megibow said her family was still confused and heartbroken this month when they unveiled her father’s tombstone more than a year after his death. Tod Megibow shot himself inside his legal office in Paducah, Kentucky.

Jay Dinwiddie didn’t understand why his father Jim, a 63-year-old former University of Kentucky basketball star, would kill himself. Then, he looked at what Jay called his father’s “depressing” case files and it made sense.

Some of these attorneys appeared to perform exceptionally well until the very last moment.

Ken Jameson, 58, from Ohio was generating about $600,000 in billing hours for his law firm every year. His three children were doing well and his wife, Betsy, said their relationship was exceptional.

“I never dreamed that I would be a widow at 58,” said Betsy Jameson. “We were starting the best chapter of our lives. We were empty-nesters. We had plenty of money.”

Her husband killed himself in May 2011 after a six-month battle with depression. Betsy Jameson said her husband was doing all the right things to dig himself out of a downward spiral, fueled by the stress of his job.

“He was under the care of a psychiatrist and psychologist. He was exercising. He was trying not to work as much as he was,” she said. “I think he was seeking all the help he could,” she said, adding that she thinks his doctors didn’t do everything they could to help him.

For a family man who had been the fixer and the caretaker of everyone under his roof, losing that sense of control, his widow said, took him over the edge.

“He didn’t want to be cared for by me,” Betsy Jameson said. “He was our caretaker.”

The reasons vary, but the stresses are the same. Just ask Steve Angel, who blogged about his depression. “My name is Steve Angel, and I am neither a social scientist nor a representative of any of the institutions of the legal profession. I am a workaholic who, after 27 years in the profession, hit a wall, crashed, burned and lost the one thing I always wanted to do — practice law.”

Angel thought he was going to kill himself after the stress mounted. Clients demanded to know why he was not returning their calls. He was eventually disciplined by the Oklahoma Bar Association for failing to represent several of them. He began spending days in bed, locked in his home, hiding from his clients and his life, he recalled.

“Instead of eight hours of sleep a night I was able to get by on six hours and finally four hours. The next things to go were my hobbies. I didn’t have time for reading, so I stopped reading for fun. I didn’t have time to take off from work so I stopped taking vacations. Then I stopped socializing because I didn’t have time to waste away from work. Then I suffered through a divorce and the loss of my family,” Angel said. “For the next 10 years, the chief source of joy in my life was winning a case. Finally, in 2003, I had nothing left to give, hit a wall and crashed and burned.”

He voluntarily gave up his law license and has only returned to work as a legal researcher. He also studies depression in his old profession. Angel believes the profession is a magnet for workaholics who fall into a pattern where stress leads to depression, which can then trigger substance abuse or marital problems. Often, disciplinary cases ensue.

“A lawyer has conflict. He’s got his clients, he’s got other lawyers, he’s got the opposition lawyers, he’s got insurance companies, judges, jurors, and he’s got the bar association,” said Deters, who has faced disciplinary charges himself. “They will take the most minor little thing. And they will turn it into a problem for a lawyer.”

Dan Lukasik founded Lawyers With Depression after he started descending into a paralyzing depression. “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 a superman or superwoman. You’re not supposed to have problems,” he said. “The general public already has a problem with lawyers and when I started to talk about this problem they didn’t want to hear it. They thought, ‘a person who makes a lot of money and has this job should not be having this problem.’ ”

The problem starts as early as law school. Dr. Andy Benjamin of the University of Washington conducted a study of law students that estimated 40% suffered from depression by the time they graduated. After law school comes the high stress process of admission to the bar, when Lukasik said lawyers fear reporting treatment for any type of depression or mental illness because they risk not meeting the “character and fitness” requirements. “They could shut down their career,” he said. Most state bars make subjective decisions as to whether mental illness or depression, treated or untreated, are barriers to a candidate’s certification to practice law.

Then there is the career itself. The public perception is often that lawyers are rich and powerful, but reality can be grim for some attorneys. After the economic downturn, many big law firms lowered pay and laid people off. The National Law Journal reported in May 2009 that even prestigious firms like Kilpatrick Stockton, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and King & Spalding lost an attorney each to suicide after being laid off.

In the aftermath of losing loved ones, some friends and family members have sought to raise awareness and support for others in similar situations.

When Tabitha Hochscheid learned her legal partner Ken Jameson committed suicide she sobbed in disbelief.

“I was so grief stricken by it,” said Hochscheid. “He hanged himself in the basement. His wife was at church and she came home to find him. They had been married 35 years. He had a healthy diet, he exercised every day. From all appearances, he was a wonderful lawyer and a happy man.”

Hochscheid moved into another office after Jameson’s death. She soon discovered that two other lawyers in her new building had taken their own lives as well. She doesn’t want another legal partner, family member or friend to experience the pain she feels when she thinks about her dear friend Jameson. She established a mental health assistance group in his name and has vowed to raise $100,000 for her cause. Jameson’s widow made the first contribution of $25,000. Donations have been pouring in.

“You have to be there for other people and have to let them know that you’re there for them,” said Hochschied. “And thinking that you can do it alone, which is a tendency lawyers have, isolating themselves, is something that the industry has to change.”

As for Heather Price, she recently sought help in coping with her husband’s suicide. She had started a thriving legal consulting firm with him, her childhood sweetheart. Now she has this to say about her own profession: “It has really messed up my life. Something has to be done; we (lawyers) all carry with us pains and hurt and depression in a profession that is so stressful and deals with other people’s problems.”