Suicide has been a pervasive issue in the legal profession for many years, but the more we understand and talk about this issue, the more help we can give to those at risk. JoAnn Hathaway and Molly Ranns talk with Erica Grigg about her personal experiences and her insights on how to recognize signs and talk to someone you fear may be considering suicide. They also discuss the impactful ways Lawyer Assistance Programs provide support to legal professionals and help with suicide prevention.
Erica Grigg is director of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program.
Molly Ranns: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I’m Molly Ranns.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Erica Grigg, Director for the State Bar of Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, join us today to talk about suicide prevention in the legal community. Erica, would you share some information about yourselves with our listeners, please.
Erica Grigg: Absolutely. And thank you so much for having me. It just makes my heart sing that any program that brings attention to mental health, mental health advocacy, I’m just always so pleased to join. So, thank you for asking me to join you today. You know a little bit about myself. I’ve worked at the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program for three years. I’ve been the director for all of two months, oh my goodness.
Before I joined the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, I spent most of my professional career as a litigator. I was licensed in 2001 in Texas and most of that litigation work was civil rights work and I loved it. It’s why I went to law school. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help people and so, I’ve really, really loved my legal career.
And also, just a little background on me, I’m currently in the process of getting my masters in clinical mental health. I’ve got six hours left. I’m so close to the finish line. That’s me in a nutshell is lawyer. And you’ll hear in a minute why I sort of got into mental health advocacy as well.
Molly Ranns: Thank you so much for being here today Erica. You just mentioned we’d hear about why you got into mental health advocacy. Could you tell us a little bit about your own personal story and how you became so passionate about this topic?
Erica Grigg: I am so glad you asked that and yes. So, you know, I just mentioned how much I loved the practice of law. You know, I’ve loved litigating, it checked all the boxes. It was exciting. It was fun. It felt purposeful.
In 2018, I was walking the red carpet at the Oscars because HBO decided to do a documentary on a case where I was lead counsel, plaintiff’s counsel. It was a civil rights case. The film is called “Traffic Stop” and I’m not the best lawyer in Texas, civil rights lawyer. I was just at the right place at the right time and this beautiful career offered me this opportunity that I could have never expected. But along with the excitement and the thrill and the feelings of feeling purposeful for me came very severe depression and anxiety.
And 11 years ago on Mother’s Day, I attempted to take my own life. It was a shock to my family. It was a shock to my co-workers. It was a shock to people that knew me very well. And it was so important to me 11 years ago to not come forward for two reasons. One, I was actively abusing alcohol at the time. It’s how I, and I’m using air quotes, you can’t see them on a podcast but it’s how I managed my stress. It’s the only tool I had and I knew you would ask me to quit drinking if you knew how I was feeling inside and I was terrified to do that.
The second reason why I didn’t come forward and ask for help was I’m a woman in a very male-dominated part of our profession which is litigation. I am fighting the stigma that a lot of women have fought and that’s that we are over emotional, that we cannot handle the pressure of litigation. I thought that if I came forward and talked about what was going on inside of my heart and my head that my career litigation would be over before it even started. So I didn’t say a word.
And I’ve got to say, I’ve always had up here what I call my hamster in the wheel and he is always running and a lot of lawyers have that. You know a lot of people in our profession have that. That’s not always a bad thing. It’s what helps us stay up for a week and try a case. It’s what helped us stay up three days to study for finals in law school. But my hamster was also a real jerb and I now know the words, the script that I kept hearing in my head from that hamster was, “You’re a phony, you’re an imposter, you don’t belong, you’re not smart enough.” And from my earliest memories, that’s what I heard. And I know that maladaptive narrative now to be major depressive disorder but I didn’t know that then.
And so, after my suicide attempt, I went to treatment and I got a diagnosis of major depressive disorder and I entered dual program for substance use and depression and I’ve been sober and I have been committed daily to my mental health since that time 11 years ago.
And so, it was a perfect segue for me to come and join TLAP three years ago but also, it has made me very passionate about this work because I have that legal experience, I know what it’s like to be in the trenches and then I know what it’s like to experience a mental health diagnosis. So that is a very long way from me to say I love this work. It’s personal. It’s professional. That’s how I got interested in all of this.
JoAnn Hathaway: So Erica, thank you for sharing that foundation. I’m sure that will be very helpful to our listeners. Why is it important for lawyers to know about suicide prevention?
Erica Grigg: It’s the third leading cause of death in our profession and that’s after heart problem, sets after heart disease and cancer. It is a pervasive issue facing our profession. Not only that what we’ve learned, there’s a study. It’s an Air Force study, U.S. Air Force study, that once they trained their staff and their cadets about suicide prevention, it reduced suicide by 21% within the Air Force.
So what we know is it’s important to know about suicide prevention and how suicide affects our profession because the more we learn, the more we can help prevent it, the more we can become aware of if things are arising within ourselves that may require treatment and the more aware we become of what others are experiencing.
I’ll also say and these are very shocking numbers. There are some studies that say that within the profession of law, we have six times the suicide rate than the general population and we know from a 2015 ABA study that 11.5% of attorneys have considered suicide at some point in their career. And so, that is why it is important for us as attorneys and in this profession to know about suicide.
Molly Ranns: Those are hard statistics to hear I imagine for some. What are some signs that someone might be at risk?
Erica Grigg: Well, preoccupation with death can be a sign, losing interest in the future, these are things when we’re around our colleagues and I know when I was practicing, I was around my work colleagues more than I was around my family. When we really get to know the people that we work around, we know when there are just very notable personality changes. That’s something else to think about. Making comments about hopelessness, feeling worthless, seeing no way out, those sort of verbal cues are important.
And just like I said, those personality slings like someone who was normally very engaged and collaborative becoming isolated, not returning phone calls, not turning in work on time, and this is chronic. I mean this isn’t just once or twice but seeing these very serious and notable shifts in someone’s personality. Sometimes insomnia can be a sign but also sleeping too much can be a sign. Talking about wanting to hurt themselves, talking about just wanting out, wanting to go asleep and not wake up, that was something I said to my closest friends really was I just sometimes wish God would take me in my sleep. That was definitely something that I shared. That’s how it manifested in me. Everyone would be better off without me.
If we see an increase in substance use, that can be a sign as well. But those are all things and that’s not an exclusive list but those are certainly some indicators that someone may need some intervention.
JoAnn Hathaway: Erica, how would I ask someone if they needed help?
Erica Grigg: Well, what we say in the business is ask, A-S-K. That’s ask the question, seek more information and know where to find resources. You know, I just want to say if you are noticing that you may have to have a conversation or that you may want to have a conversation with someone about if they are thinking about suicide, this is a great time to engage LAPs, the Lawyers’ Assistance Programs just across the country.
Call your LAP. You don’t have to plan this conversation on your own. LAPs offer you a host of mental health professionals that can help you plan the conversation. You can also run by these LAP professionals. “Hey, here’s the behavior I’m noticing. Is this a thing? Am I overreacting? You can run by your concerns with those LAP professionals. I know that having a conversation with someone about their mental health and especially about if someone is suicidal, those are intense important conversations.
And I think part of the reason why we maybe don’t engage as a couple things, we’ve been trained in Western Society mind your own business, don’t bother anybody, mind your own business and I’m going to tell you here in a minute don’t mind your own business. The second thing I think is we are overwhelmed about how that conversation even begins, are we even equipped to have it? But what I’m here to tell you is ask the question ASK. Are you thinking about taking your life? Be direct.
There is a myth and I believed it before I learned more about this that if we ask someone about suicide that we are planting the seed that is absolutely not what research shows us. What we know and I bet the ladies here on this podcast can tell you through their experience is that when we ask that question, people are either glad that someone just asked about them. They will say, “No, I’m not feeling that way but thank you for caring” or they are. And they are so relieved that someone finally opened up that door for a conversation.
So the first thing is ask. Remember, ask the question and ask the question directly. Find a private place to have this conversation and like I said, you are going to feel better if you come prepared with information. Sometimes we don’t have that opportunity, right? But if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to talk to a LAP professional or a professional maybe you know that may have information about how to talk to someone about suicide, come prepared if you can. Sometimes we don’t have that luxury but if you can, do that.
So what should we do? We listen. If someone says, “Well, let’s do it this way,” if you ask, “Are you thinking about taking your life” and someone says no, they say no, still sit there if it’s safe which it should be. Sit there. Listen. Let them talk. You know, this is not a time for us to be judgmental or really give advice, just let that person debrief and talk. And if it’s appropriate, refer that person to a professional, a provider that can help them. Trust your gut. If you have a feeling that something is not okay with someone else, trust your gut. It takes so long to get there to really tell ourselves maybe I can intervene here and maybe I can help. Go with that.
So if they say no, let them talk. Don’t be judgmental. Let them know that they’re not alone. If you have a personal story like I do that’s about depression or suicide, share that story if it’s appropriate. Let them know that they’re not alone and this happens. Also something you can do with someone who is struggling is maybe get them to think of some supportive people in their life that they can start to engage and talk to. If they may be comfortable sharing with someone, “Hey, I’m going through something here. Do you mind being my person of contact,” we can help people kind of think through what is my support system, who are people I can reach out to. Let them know there are some resources in your life that maybe you haven’t thought of but we also come to them with ideas or resources if we have the time. Here are some resources if you didn’t have it.
If the answer is well, maybe or I thought about it but just in passing, release the same advice or the same suggestions that I just mentioned. We encourage them to talk. We encourage them to share. We listen. We don’t judge.
We offer them hope, remind them they’re not alone and connect them with resources in their area. Certainly if you’re comfortable giving them your own personal information as a resource, that’s wonderful. Just normalize what they’re going through. Again, with that personal story, if you have one that’s appropriate to share, do so.
A number that everyone should have in their phone is the National Suicide Prevention lifeline and that number is 1-800-273-8255. And I believe in most areas of United States, you can dial 988. I think that’s right, 988, and get to that helpline. Share that number with people that have expressed that they thought about suicide and passing. Share that number. Give them that number because that can be very helpful. I know in Texas our LAP, our staff, we are trained so I would give out my LAP number or call the LAP if you’re struggling. They’re there. They’re there for help.
You know, if someone says yes, if you ask are you planning to take your life, are you planning to hurt yourself and they say yes and there is a plan and a means, what we do is we stay present with them if it is safe. We stay there if it is safe. We ask for a commitment from them to stay alive until we can get them some help. We just ask for that verbal commitment. If it’s eminent, we call 911. We get the professionals involved and the wonderful thing about the time that we are in is most, especially the larger cities, have a mental health trained team that are associated with emergency services that can help or police officers that are trained to help and deescalate these sort of situations.
So call 911 if it’s eminent. That is absolutely a resource for you to use. If they have means and it is safe for you to help restrict those means, do so. If it is not safe, do not do that. We want to stay safe but if you can restrict their means, do so. Another option is to take that person to the emergency room. I mean, if you walk into the emergency room with someone who is acutely suicidal, there are providers there that can help that know what to do. It is a common thing for emergency staff to work with and they know what they’re doing. That’s something else you can do. And don’t be afraid and don’t hesitate and actually, please follow up with this person that you’re helping that has told you this. Follow up within the next day. Stay in touch with them. Stay in communication with them.
Again, when we are in the situation with someone else, when we are dealing with someone who is acutely suicidal who is actively suicidal, it’s the same instructions that you’ve heard before. As far as what we do, we’re not judgmental. We don’t lecture people on the value of life. We stay away from shaming discussion or comments or guilt. We don’t threaten. Also something that I learned early on was we don’t promise anybody that we’re not going to tell anyone because we will have to break that promise if someone is actively considering suicide. That’s not a promise you can keep. So don’t promise anyone that you won’t tell anyone but you can promise I am here to help you get help or I will be here and get you the help that you need. That’s a promise that you can make.
So, I know I just talked for 30 minutes on this but I wanted to walk you through kind of the different situations that come up which is when you ask and the answer is no, when you ask and the answer is maybe, when you ask and the answer is yes. So that is what I would do if someone needs help. Those are the different scenarios that pop up.
Molly Ranns: Thank you Erica. And you know, you did answer kind of how you would get help for someone who’s at risk so I would ask for you to expand on that if you have anything else to share there. And then also, how can LAPs assist in this process? And you touched on that briefly but I’d like to hear more about that as well.
Erica Grigg: Well, thank you. And yes, so LAPs are a great, great resource for legal professionals that are experiencing depression, anxiety, considering suicide for several reasons. And I know LAPs vary across the country so check your own LAP and find out what resources they have. But I think generally, it’s safe to say most LAPs have trained professionals that know how to walk — like I said, walk you through that conversation. You all can run scenarios. You all can roleplay. Use your LAP professionals in that way. It’s so helpful because these are hard conversations but they are important. They are life-saving conversations. So use your LAP to help walk you through that.
I know in Texas, we have a database. I call it Lawyer Tested Database. So we have a database full of professionals and I don’t care what corner of Texas you are at in there. There are lots of corners. We have professionals in your area who have come recommended to us by other lawyers and law students who have used them personally, not as expert witnesses, but personally and said this is a great professional so LAPs often have those kind of resources. They know who in your community they connect you with that can help you with your depression, with your anxiety, whatever it is you may be experiencing.
Another way LAPs can be professional is we for example in Texas, we are so lucky we have access. There’s a private trust that is created for finances that is created for lawyers and law students because a lot of times by the time someone gets to us, they have lost their job. They maybe have lost their families. I mean, depression and anxiety can be paralyzing. So we have financial resources for people. I bet most LAPs have at least know where to send you if you maybe need some financial assistance to help you get in to a treatment place or to help you get in to see a therapist. So LAPs are wonderful for that.
I think a lot of LAPs also have peer support and that was I will tell you. When I got into treatment for my depression and for my substance use disorder, I got connected with a peer. That was one of the most — no, that was the most critical assistance I could have gotten. And by peer I mean, in Texas and I’m sure in other LAPs, we have a legion of professionals that have been through whatever it is that have walked through fire, that are in recovery from substance use disorder, that are in remission from bipolar or in remission from major depressive disorder. They volunteer through us. They are trained. They sign confidentiality agreements.
And I got paired with this woman who absolutely saved my life and she was a female lawyer who had been through similar circumstances I had. And I’m telling you, when I was in treatment, when I didn’t believe — that wasn’t my first time to experience mental health providers. I mean, I’ve been drinking for years and depressed for years and untreated. And so, I didn’t believe my therapist when they said I’d get better. I didn’t believe my family when they said you’ll be fine. But this attorney peer that I was connected with that said, “You are going to be okay and your practice is not done with” I believed her and she was right. So peer support is another way that a LAPs can really help.
JoAnn Hathaway: Wonderful. Well, it looks like we’ve come to the end of our show. We would like to thank our guest today, Erica Grigg, for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Erica, if our listeners would like to follow up with you, what is the best way to do so?
Erica Grigg: I would love to hear from your listeners and the best way to do so, you can call our 1-800 line here at the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program and ask for Erica. I’m the only Erica here. It’s 1-800-343-8527. And also, please feel free to email me at [email protected]. I would love to hear from anybody.
Molly Ranns: Erica, thank you so much for being here today. I know this will be so impactful. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m Jo Anne Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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Podcast transcription by Tech-Synergy.com