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Judge Tells of Depression, Suicide Attempt

The Grand Rapids Press
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
By Tom Rademacher and Ken Kolker

For most of his professional life as a district court judge, Steven Servaas has been stalked by a demon. He worked 20 years to keep it a secret -- from lawyers, from family, from friends.

But one night this summer, he lost control over the secret and tried to kill himself -- an act he blames on the interaction of pain drugs for a recent injury and those he took for depression.

Kent County's longest-serving jurist, known for being colorful, confident, even-handed, went out that late night and decided the most logical thing to do was to take his life.

He swallowed what was left of his prescription sleeping pills, closed the door on a garage where a vehicle was running, climbed inside the car and waited for death to come.

When that did not work, he slit his left wrist with a fishing knife.

The next thing Servaas said he remembered was waking up in the emergency room at Spectrum Health Blodgett Campus.

For weeks, he agonized over what happened and whom to tell.

On Tuesday, for reasons as complex as the depression and anxiety he battles, he decided to tell everyone.

"I just remember being in bed and being tired of the pain in my leg," Servaas said, referring to severe burns he suffered in a brush-clearing incident three weeks before his suicide attempt. "It seemed like the logical thing to do, to basically commit suicide. It seemed like a normal decision.

"And in retrospect, that's what makes this so scary."

Servaas, 59, disclosed he has suffered from severe depression and anxiety for the better part of two decades.

It is a disease he says he kept in check, and also a secret, because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. He contemplated resigning after the suicide attempt, but now vows to press on, in part to show he and others dealing with depression can lead productive lives.

Following an eight-week medical leave, Servaas returned to the bench in Rockford District Court last week after receiving clearance from state officials.

The clearance is necessary any time a question arises about a judge's health. Conditions include he stay in touch with a local psychiatrist and provide a list of his prescription drugs to a physician supervising his case.

Since his election in 1971 at age 27, Servaas has been a judicial institution in northern Kent County.

He once bolted from the bench to chase a fleeing criminal, catching him a few blocks later. He has made no secret of his contempt for laws that require motorcyclists to wear helmets or motorists to don seat belts. He is well-regarded by prosecutors and defense lawyers for his even-handed treatment.

In 2002, he received the highest possible judicial rating by the Grand Rapids Bar Association.

That was his outward persona. Servaas said his battle with depression began with what he remembers as worsening anxiety attacks.

Determined to find a remedy but dissatisfied with local medical sources, he sought help from a Florida psychiatrist.

The initial treatment regimen included taking Nardil, an anti-depressant he still takes. He also remains a patient of the Florida specialist.

Servaas maintains the recent suicide attempt is the only time his safety net failed.

He initially refused to publicly discuss the June 23 attempt, choosing instead to hand-pick those with whom he shared details. His staff was alerted almost immediately. So were assorted lawyers and some officials at Rockford City Hall and in area law enforcement.

He returned to the bench Aug. 2, but his grip on rumor control slipped as word-of-mouth grew.

Public documents obtained Tuesday by The Press in Kent County Probate Court provided details through a trio of clinicians who observed Servaas after his arrival at Spectrum.

The judge, one clinician wrote, "overdosed on Ambien (sleeping pills), gashed his left wrist and had a plan to go through with killing himself with carbon monoxide."

Court records also showed Servaas was deemed "mentally ill" by all three observers, diagnosed with "major depression, " and transferred to an inpatient mental-health program in Fremont.

He was treated after Ada Township firefighters responded around midnight to a medical emergency at property Servaas owns in the 100 block of Honey Creek Avenue NE. Fire Chief Jim Duvall refused to provide details, citing confidentiality laws.

Servaas says longtime friend and local lawyer Craig Avery, a tenant at the Honey Creek address, found him and alerted authorities.

Of the suicide attempt, Servaas said his memory was "hazy," although he insisted the sleeping pills were not a separate attempt -- only something to help him sleep through the monoxide.

"I count this as one suicide attempt," he said, disagreeing with doctors who described it as three. "The whole thing couldn't have taken six, seven minutes at the most."

According to Servaas, the attempt was rooted in problems that arose from a drug regimen prescribed after he accidentally burned himself.

On June 3, he said, he used gasoline to burn brush he cleared on the Honey Creek parcel. At one point, he dropped the gas can and tried to kick it away from the fire. When he did, the fuel splashed onto the back of his left leg and ignited.

He drove himself to the hospital and was treated for third-degree burns. A few days later, he underwent skin-graft surgery to replace an area roughly the width and length of a loaf of bread.

For at least 20 years, Servaas has taken the anti-depressant Nardil. Although he said he shared that information with doctors, he believes he became chemically imbalanced when Nardil combined with pain-relief drugs.

Chief 63rd District Judge Sara Smolenski, who oversees southern areas of Kent County and works closely with Servaas, said Servaas went on medical leave June 4, the day after the fire.

A half-dozen judges, including some retired jurists, sat in on his cases during his absence, said Smolenski, who also carried some of the caseload.

Smolenski call Servaas "an excellent judge. He's a good person. He's competent or he wouldn't be back," she said.

At first, medical officials petitioned to have him involuntarily committed to a mental-health facility, and documents were filed in Kent County Probate Court detailing the suicide attempt.

Emergency-room social worker Ryan LaRue wrote that within an hour of his attempt, Servaas said, "I will try to end my life again, if I continue to feel this way." LaRue also said Servaas left a suicide note.

Servaas was seen that same night at Blodgett by Dr. Bryan Judge, according to court records. The doctor examined him for 20 minutes at 1 a.m., writing he has a "substantial disorder of thought or mood that significantly impairs judgment." He reported Servaas had a 5-centimeter gash on his wrist.

The next day, Servaas was examined at New Focus, an inpatient mental-health treatment center at Gerber Memorial Health Services in Fremont.

Dr. Dhana Mahesh, a psychiatrist, wrote Servaas' "judgment cannot be trusted at this time due to significant depression."

On June 25, after meeting with his attorney, Terry Tobias, Servaas signed a document voluntarily seeking treatment for up to 90 days, including time at New Focus.

He also agreed to "alternative treatment" through Kent County Community Mental Health.

Court officials said the voluntary commitment closed the probate case.

Before returning to work, Servaas needed permission from a doctor as well as an independent medical examination.

The state "imposes these requirements to ensure judges' health and safety, and the health and safety of the public and court employees," said Marcia McBrien, spokeswoman for the State Court Administrator's Office.

"Many people suffer from physical and mental illnesses, but receive proper treatment and function well," McBrien said.

Servaas said he not only agreed to demands by state officials, but voluntarily provided testimonials on his behalf from two other physicians.

Rockford City Manager Michael Young, a friend, said he visits with Servaas nearly every day and has "no doubts whatsoever" the judge is capable of performing his job.

"He's a complete credit to the bench and the profession," Young said. "I've been in a lot of courtrooms, and I've never seen a judge treat people with more dignity and respect than Judge Servaas. That's who he is."

Although at one point Servaas contemplated resigning, he said Tuesday he intended to stay on. He has 4 1/2 years remaining on his six-year term. He likely will not seek re-election after that, he said.

Servaas said he decided to go public with his story in part because he was aware of a pending Press story.

He also hoped people would come to understand "the difference between a physical disease and a mental disease is just what part of your body breaks down.

"If you break your arm, everyone understands. But if you break a minute part of your brain ... people treat it as a much more scary thing, and tend to shy away from it."

┬ę 2004 Grand Rapids Press. Copyright 2004 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.


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