Suicide Watch

There is a time and place for suicide, at least according to the laws in three states – Oregon, Washington, and Montana. But most often it is a drastically permanent solution to temporary problems. As legal professionals we frequently provide services to people experiencing those problems. This can be particularly true when providing services to the elder client. It can also be particularly troublesome as it can be hard to see the distinction between the permanency of aging and the diminished capacity that goes with it and the impermanent nature of some of the psychological effects of that diminished capacity. So here’s today’s comment drawn from The Empowered Paralegal: Working with the Elder Client:”


Suicide is not itself a psychological disorder. However, it can be the result of the psychological disorders affecting the elderly. Every text I consulted on the psychology of aging emphasizes the risk of suicide among elderly clients. Hooyman and Kiyak note studies estimating that 17 to 25 percent of all completed suicides occur in persons aged 65 and older with the highest rate among older white males. The legal professional should learn the risk factors for suicide in older adults and take all indications of suicidal ideation seriously. The risk factors include

• a serious physical illness with severe pain
• the sudden death of a loved one
• a major loss of independence or feelings of financial inadequacy
• statements that indicate frustration with life and a desire to end it
• a sudden decision to give away one’s most important possessions
• a general loss of interest in one’s social and physical environment.

All sources report that the axiom that someone who talks about suicide will not attempt suicide is a myth. Therefore, all indication of potential suicide on the part of our clients should be taken seriously. Establish a procedure to be followed in your office for when you are concerned about a client. That procedure must include voicing that concern to the attorney immediately and should also include voicing the concern to the client. In certain cases, it should also include asking the client if they have a plan and what they have done to advance the plan. Seek professional help immediately. gives the following advice to people seeking to help prevent suicide among friends:
If the person seems unwilling to accept treatment, call 1.800.273.TALK (8255) or a local emergency room for resources and advice.
If the person seems willing to accept treatment, do one of the following…
* Bring him or her to a local emergency room or community mental health center. Your friend will be more likely to seek help if you accompany him or her.
* Contact his or her primary care physician or mental health provider.

Generally we are not, and should not attempt to be, our clients’ friend. However, it may be appropriate to act in accordance with this advice except that we must confront the issue of breaching attorney/client confidentiality under these circumstances is not clear, at least according to some writers, so again it is important to discuss this matter with your attorney and have a clear policy and procedures in place before the need arises. (This ethical issue, along with others particularly pertinent to elderly clients, is discussed more extensively elsewhere in the book.)

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