The Suicide of a Lawyer with Depression — Ken’s Story
Posted Jul 30 2011 9:02am
This is a guest blog by Cincinnati, Ohio attorney Tabitha M. Hochscheid, Esq ., a partner at the law firm of Cohen, Todd, Kite & Stanford, LLC. In this moving tribute, she writes about her law partner and dear friend Ken Jameson who committed suicide in May of 2011 after a battle with depression.
How well do we know those with whom we spend our work days with? Is it possible to practice with someone and be there friend for years yet, not truly know that they are suffering from the depths of depression? Being around other attorneys can give us the camaraderie and support we need to grow and build our practice. But, often times, people keep their emotional health a secret and suffer from depression in silence. By the time their colleagues realize what is going on, it can be too late to do anything about it. My partner and friend Ken Jameson was one of the people. This is his story.
Ken Jameson was, by outward appearances, successful, well liked, a loving husband and father, a friend to everyone and a dependable partner. In fact, Ken was perhaps the epitome of the well liked, client centered and dedicated lawyer many of us envision when we think of how lawyers should behave. On the inside, however, Ken was struggling with the depression which eventually took his life.
I first met Ken in the summer of 2007 for breakfast to discuss my interest in joining Cohen, Todd, Kite and Stanford, LLC. Ken was so easy to talk to and we instantly bonded because he too had left a small firm to find a place to grow and build his practice at Cohen, Todd, Kite & Stanford, LLC. After I joined the firm in January 2008, Ken was always available to help and support me and we grew into friends, as well as, colleagues.
Like so many attorneys, Ken built a practice by creating a network of referrals, by giving his clients personal service and building long term relationships. He was an attorney who facilitated resolutions and provided estate plans for people of all income levels. Ken enjoyed his work. After joining the firm himself in 2006, his practice thrived. He became a trusted member of the firm and was on the management committee. Ken shared is life outside of the office with his wife and best friend of 35 years, Betsy, and three adult children of whom he was most proud.
Ken was a universally well liked person. He conducted himself professionally in such a way that he never seemed to have conflicts with others. Ken cared about his firm family, he always checked in on people if they were sick or if he knew you were under stress. He was active member in his Church. Ken took care of his physical health by walking 5 miles a day, attending Pilates classes twice a week and maintaining a healthy diet. By all outward appearances, Ken had success in his work, a happy home life and seemed content.
However, Ken had underlying mental health issues. Like many attorneys he had trouble sleeping well. Sleep is something that eludes most attorneys from time to time, but his type of sleep loss was chronic. He would fall asleep and wake up in just a few hours and not be able to go back to sleep. As long as I knew Ken, he had this issue. He tried relaxation techniques to help him sleep better, he read books about stress management and attempted to delegate work to others. Ultimately, Ken was a self confessed perfectionist and as such, had an inner critic who told him he had to be at work all the time.
Most lawyers struggle with the challenges of building a law practice, client demands and finding out how to have precious downtime. Ken was doing all the right things, but he still wasn’t able to sleep. In March of this year, he took time out of the office due to exhaustion. He went to see his family doctor and was prescribed something for sleep. He tried to come back to the office part time within a few weeks but was unable to sustain a schedule. Ken represented to those of us at work that he was exhausted and initially did not tell others what was really going on.
In late April, he left the office again. This time it was lack of sleep and a pinched a nerve in his back. With this new medical issue, his depression worsened. He spent sometime in the hospital to adjust to new medications and was scheduled for back surgery. At this point, Ken began expressing worry about the office and felt as if he was letting the firm down. Finally, Ken had back surgery for the pinched nerve in the middle of May. After the surgery, Ken seemed to be doing better; everyone thought his return to the office was imminent.
Ken never returned to the office. On Sunday, May 22, 2011, I received a call from our office manager. She informed me that Ken’s depression had worsened and that he had taken his own life that morning. As the next few days unfolded, details began to surface. Ken underwent surgery on his back and in the days following the procedure, had checked in with people at the office and had seemed like his old self. Ken also visited his mother and called his best friend. All the while, Ken meticulously planned how to take his own life.
No one can answer the question of what was going through his head or why he was in such despair that he took his life. The next five days were difficult at the office. People were in a state of shock and disbelief. His office door has remained open since Monday, May 23, 2011. A memorial was held the Saturday following his death and it was standing room only. Ken clearly touched the lives of thousands and his life was remembered in eulogies by his friends, his sister and his wife. It was touching to see so many people who loved him, but the confusion as to what occurred actually increased for many.
Do you ever really know the people we practice law with? Everyone at the office felt they had a personal relationship with Ken. But, did anyone of us really know what was happening. It is easy now to look back and see the signs of Ken’s illness (sleep deprivation, self criticism, feeling of letting others down, a search for answers and inability to allow others to help) and to wonder what if anything could have changed the outcome. Time, however, does not give us this luxury and these questions will never be answered. The best that can be done is to acknowledge that Ken’s illness, depression, can be deadly.
It seems that our profession gives little in return for years of hard labor. Learning a way to balance the demands of the business of being a lawyer with the need for downtime is essential to one’s mental and physical health. Ken’s depression is an all too real downside of the practice of law. His suicide is a tragedy to his family, our law firm and to the legal community. He was one of the “good” guys and the profession needs more people like him.
For those of us left behind we struggle for understanding and to carry on in spite of the sadness we each feel. Inevitably when speaking with others we are confronted with the questions of why? Most people will ask the normal questions – were there money problems, did he have marital problems or health issues. The answer to these questions is no and then people just cannot fathom why Ken chose to end his life. I know in my heart that, as the minister said during his memorial, that Ken felt he was “fixing” the situation. Ken was a fixer and this was his only choice left.
I’ll always miss Ken Jameson. The courage and commitment he showed to his clients, his family and those of us in business with him is something I admire. However, his suffering in silence has left me and his other colleagues with regrets as to what we could have done to help. In the end, however, Ken could not give himself permission to be less than perfect and eventually, felt those in his life were better off without him. It is truly a sad ending to a beautiful life that could have been prevented. My hope in sharing Ken’s story is that there will be greater recognition of depression and the despair that can accompany and that it will help someone struggling with these issues. As for Ken, I hope he has found the peace that life did not provide.
Editors note If you or someone you know suffers from depression and may have thought about suicide, visit the website of the national organization The American Association of Suicidology which contains great information, resources and how to get help. Lawyers can also contact Lawyer Assistance Programs in their legal community. To locate a program near you, visit the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs website.