Perhaps one of the most important people to “come out” this year about suicidal thinking is Orlando Da Silva, the new head of the Ontario Bar Association. As soon as he took up the post in August, the trial lawyer started speaking openly to the media and others about his own attempt and recovery.
“I was told the Toronto Star report was seen by 2 million people,” he says.
On Friday, the bar association launched a project called Opening Remarks, which aims to put mental health front and center in the legal community. You can watch Orlando’s interview here, and he has started a series of interviews with other legal professionals. The first features the president of the Canadian Bar Association talking about her experience with depression.
“I encourage others to think about going public,” Orlando says in his video. “The atmosphere is better than it’s ever been, the timing is better than it’s ever been. No matter what they’re feeling, I think there are better days to come. And this is the start of it.”
Lawyers have some of the highest suicide rates, but many feel they can’t open up about mental health issues. The Dave Nee Foundation, a U.S.-based group that focuses on suicide and depression in the legal community, says 64 percent of the law school students it has spoken to say fear of professional consequences keeps them from seeking help.
And yet, some lawyers do speak out. We just came across this story featuring former Massachusetts state senator and lawyer Bob Antonioni, who says life as an elected official once kept him from seeking help. Melody Moezzi has taken aim at the character and fitness questions about mental health that stand between law students and the bar. And Dan Lukasik broke ground with his website Lawyers with Depression.
A new-found example is Brian Clarke, a law professor in North Carolina whose three-part series on his own experience (here, here and here) will be published in February in the Journal of Legal Education. He points out that he’s not even tenured, a measure of security that some people wait to attain before speaking about issues like suicidal thinking.
“As much as you try not to get emotionally invested in your client’s case or problem, you often do,” he writes in a passage that could apply to the health field as well. “When that happens, losing hurts. Letting your client down hurts. This pain leads to reliving the case and thinking about all of the things you could have done better.”
This is how Brian opens up to his first-year law students: Near the end of his course in Civil Procedure, after students have come to know him and before the crush of final exams, he starts class by saying, “There is something that I need to talk to y’all about today.” Then he launches into the pressures of a law career, the statistics on depression and anxiety and his own experience.
He has given the talk at least 10 times. “I have had many students (looking sort of shell shocked) tell me that they had no idea that anyone else had felt or thought the things they had felt and thought,” he writes. “Every single student I have ever talked to about these issues has appreciated – above all else – my openness and honesty, not only about my illness, but about the challenges of being a lawyer. And not a single one thought less of me or lost any respect for me as a result. On the contrary, my openness and honesty increased their respect for me as a person and as a teacher.”
Both Brian and Orlando make it clear: Professionals must do more to talk openly about this issue, and in personal terms. As Orlando told the Toronto Star, “I think it’ll help if it means someone says, ‘If da Silva can get in front of a podium and say these things, then I can pick up the phone and call someone and talk about it.'”
With that in mind, both Orlando and the Dave Nee Foundation are part of a symposium proposal for next year’s International Association for Suicide Prevention conference in Montreal.