Written by: Ellie Schelleng
It may be no exaggeration to say we are experiencing a suicide epidemic. Suicide is increasing at an alarming rate and, as a result, we are living in a time of heightened awareness. According to the CDC, suicide rates have increased in nearly every state from 1999 to 2016. In half those states, the suicide rate has increased by more than 30%. Some of the most at risk populations are veterans, LGBTQ+ youth, and middle-aged white men (who account for 70% of suicides). Often, spikes in rates of death by suicide can alert observers to underlying issues, such as opioid abuse. In late 2018, a rise in suicides among New York City taxi and ride-hail drivers sparked a New York Times investigation. Charged an exorbitant amount for their taxi medallions and given predatory loans to pay for them, eight New York City drivers felt that suicide was their only option. Members of our Consumer Protection Clinic are currently litigating the consumer protection violations of these predatory loans on behalf of several taxi drivers.
Cab drivers are just one of many populations with an elevated risk of suicide. The CDC has listed physical health and legal, money, or housing stresses as major contributors to suicide risk. All of our clients are facing a combination of those stresses and many face additional risk factors. For example, many of our clients are veterans; the suicide rate of veterans is 1.5 times higher than that of civilians. Domestic violence survivors also make up a large portion of our clients. Approximately one in four domestic violence survivors attempt suicide; in the general population, the rate is three out of one hundred.
Our clients aren’t the only people we’re concerned about. When ranked by profession, lawyers have the fourth highest incidence of suicide. They also have other risk factors like higher rates of mental illness and intense stress from peer competition and high stakes cases. It’s not just our attorneys that we are concerned about. Most of our office is staffed by law students and undergraduate legal interns. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among undergraduates and 40% of law students suffer from depression after three years of law school.
We are acutely aware that suicide is a growing problem in our community and as advocates need to be well-informed for our clients’ sakes. So, on Monday, July 1st, the Safety Net Project invited Kendra McDonald from Samaritans, Inc, a Boston based suicide prevention organization, to talk to us about how we can prevent suicide in our community. Kendra, who we met at the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair, is the Community Education and Outreach Coordinator with Samaritans. Inc.
Kendra went over the warning signs and risk factors to look for in our clients and peers, giving some great tips on how to talk to people who express suicidal thoughts or who show other warning signs. Kendra also underscored how tough it is to be in our position: seeing someone in crisis takes an intense emotional toll. Kendra used part of her presentation to encourage us to perform some self-care, saying “Each of you should spend at least an hour today doing some self-care, whatever that looks like for you.”
All of our interns felt that this presentation was deeply important, even though it was at times hard. Sydnie Tiseo, an intern with the Veterans Justice Project, summarized it best, saying: “It’s easy to glaze over because we don’t like talking about it, but it’s an important topic to be reminded of.” Daniel McCarthy of the Estate Planning Project said, “It’s easy to forget how difficult our client’s situation is; it’s helpful to understand what our clients are going through.” Dan also mentioned how the presentation has changed his client interactions: “It’s prompted me to be on the look-out for mental health issues and suicidal thoughts in my clients.” Sydnie, who sits next to Dan, chimed in: “It’s also applicable to friends too.” One of the goals of this presentation was to help us become more comfortable with peer intervention. Katrina Fisher, an undergraduate with the Estate Planning Project, has already taken that to heart. “It’s helpful to know before going into the profession,” she said, “I’m paying more attention so I can see the signs and I’m listening to what the law students’ friends are doing that’s dangerous behavior; I’m more aware now of the risks for lawyers.”
Emily Skahill, an intern in the Safety Net Project, found the presentation really useful in pointing out ways to respond to people in crisis. “There was an emphasis on reaffirming their experiences and how we have these normal human responses that aren’t helpful in that situation.” Nikolas Paladino, also from the Safety Net Project, expressed a similar opinion. “In this line of work, I’m very logical and I’m often trying to fix problems that my clients bring up. Part of what Kendra was saying was that you don’t have to fix all of their problems. Sometimes people are just venting because they need to vent.”
For one of our interns, suicide hits particularly close to home. Arielle Lui of the Safety Net Project is a student at Claremont McKenna College, which had two deaths by suicides this past spring semester. “At bigger universities, they’ll send out an email saying ‘Someone died,’ but we’re such a small campus that it’s different. You know where they lived, you can walk to the room they were in when they died,” she said. “The administration didn’t really know how to handle it, so they just tried to move on as if nothing happened,” she went on. Ari added that friends of the victims on her campus felt like they had seen these deaths coming and that the presentation was the most comprehensive discussion and walkthrough on how to help people in crisis that she had ever had. In the end, Ari had this to say: “There is nothing more important than life and preserving that.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide or are worried about a loved one, call or text Samaritans at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673). You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.