A Necessary Look at Mental Health in Law School

This is the second in a series of posts drawing attention to Law Student Mental Health Day. You can read our first post here. If you want to share your story with us about feeling out of place, send a few lines to bclawimpact@bc.edu, or use the social media hashtag #fittingin.

It can be unbelievably daunting to ask for help. An environment where competition is paramount and the drive for success is all-encompassing makes help-seeking seem risky and shameful. Fear often paralyzes and dissuades so that many individuals don’t pursue help they need.

I was fearful my 1L year. I was fearful of imperfection and failure. I was fearful that admission of my difficulties would make them more real, would show that I was weak, and would indicate that I could not succeed in school or in my chosen career.

Moreover, I thought that because my grades were fine and that I liked my courses, I was simply being overdramatic. Still, I felt out-of-sorts. I had trouble focusing and retaining information. I was drowning in worries. I absolutely wasn’t myself. I told myself that this was just law school – just growing pains – and decided to press on in silence. Looking back, I wish I had sought support for my “typical law school stress” much earlier. Boston College has many resources available for the prevention and resolution of mental health issues that could have lessened the duration and impact of my detrimental mindset.

Mental health issues are rampant around the United States. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Behavior Health Statistics and Quality National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2015, over forty million Americans (1 in 5) have a mental health condition.1 Mental health issues may be brought on by a number of biological and environmental factors such as stress, financial problems and major life changes and are correlated with serious societal and personal detriments.2 Like physical health, good mental health facilitates life satisfaction and motivation.3 Thus, it is important that individuals receive appropriate mental health care.

As evidenced by increasing media coverage and the availability of mental health services, numerous steps have been taken to reduce stigma and open a public dialogue on mental health. However, the legal profession lags behind the general public in addressing mental health issues. A 2014 Survey of Law Student Well-Being revealed that law students disproportionally faced mental health and substance abuse issues in comparison with other graduate students and with the general population.4 Large percentages of law students screened positively for depression and anxiety.5 Over one-sixth of students diagnosed with depression and nearly one-third of students diagnosed with anxiety had been diagnosed by mental health professionals during law school.6 More than one-quarter of law students reported issues with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis, personality disorders, and/or substance use issues.7 Yet less than half of law students that admitted a need for professional aid actually sought out help.8

Elevated instances of mental health issues for law students is not all that surprising. Students assume considerable risks for mental distress during law school. Students often are particularly serious and passionate in regard to their legal education because entering law school is a major life decision, financial expense, and time commitment. Consequently when expectations of law school or the legal profession fall short, students may feel an overwhelming sense of loss.9 Furthermore, the pressure to succeed, compete, and fulfill career goals often drives students to sacrifice essential aspects of life. Satisfaction of spiritual, physical, mental, and social needs are fundamental to mental wellness, so when these needs are not met mental health may deteriorate.10

But if law students are at such high risk for mental issues, why are students failing to seek help? I delayed asking for help because I was unduly influenced by the stigma surrounding mental health issues and was unwilling to express vulnerability to myself and others in the competitive law school environment. As of 2014, stigma was the reason forty-three percent of law students refrained from seeking help for mental issues.11 Other students cited privacy concerns (43%), belief they could handle the problem themselves (39%), and financial concerns (41%) as reasons for avoiding help.12 But the primary reason law students in particular fail to seek help is the legal profession itself. Over sixty-three percent of students fail to seek help for fear the bar will not allow admission and sixty-two percent of students worry seeking help will negatively impact their career chances and/or academic status.13 These findings suggest a false impression among law students concerning help-seeking behavior that negatively impacts student  well-being, especially for those who need help most.

The typical apprehensions for seeking help for mental issues are tenuous. Mental issues can be treated, resolved, and/or prevented. Mental distress is not due to personal weakness and being open about mental issues may help reduce the stigma surrounding them.14 Seeking help for mental issues should not impair an individual’s ability to pass the bar or excel in a legal profession. Many states (Massachusetts included) still ask about mental health for character and fitness assessment; however, seeking treatment for mental distress is not a basis for the denial of admission.15 In fact, law examiners in many states have looked more favorably on applicants who sought help than those who have avoided needed treatment.16 Additionally, some states offer conditional admission to the bar where ongoing mental health treatment is encouraged and will not hinder bar admission or employability.17 

Mental health is integral to and inseparable from overall health and life-satisfaction.18 If you are sick, you go to the doctor; if you are confused in class, you go to office hours; if you lose the game, you practice. If you are struggling mentally it is only natural to seek a remedy. Regardless of whether you can push through alone, if there is an opportunity to improve the quality of your life, why not take it?


Boston College supports a number of mental health services for law students:

Other resources:


2L student Erika Craven loves hearing from Impact readers. She can be reached at cravener@bc.edu.

Sources

  1. Nguyen, Theresa, et al., State of Mental Health in America 2018, Mental Health America, 2017. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/issues/state-mental-health-america.
  2. Bender, Katherine M.; Jaffe, David B.; Organ, Jerome M., Helping Law Students Get the Help They Need: An Analysis of Data Regarding Law Students’ Reluctance to Seek Help and Policy Recommendations for a Variety of Stakeholders, The Bar Examiner, Dec. 2015. http://www.ncbex.org/pdfviewer/?file=%2Fassets%2Fmedia_files%2FBar-Examiner%2Fissues%2F2015-December%2FBE-Dec2015-HelpingLawStudents.pdf.
  3. Layard, Richard et al., What Predicts a Successful Life? A Life-Course Model of Well-Being, The Economic Journal, Nov. 2014. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ecoj.12170.; Deci, Edward L. and Ryan, Richard M., Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains, Canadian Psychology, Vol 49(1), Feb. 2008. 14-22, at p.18. https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2008_DeciRyan_CanPsy_Eng.pdf.; Johnson, Freddie L. et al., Comparison of Mental Health and Life Satisfaction of Five Elderly Ethnic Groups, Western Journal of Nursing Research, 1988, 10(5), 613-628. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/019394598801000510?journalCode=wjna.; Warr, Peter, The measurement of well-being and other aspects of mental health, The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Vol 63(3), Sept. 1990. 193-210. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.2044-8325.1990.tb00521.x.
  4. Agatstein, Jessie et al., Falling Through the Cracks: A Report on Mental Health at Yale Law School, Yale Law School Mental Health Alliance Publication, Dec. 2014., https://law.yale.edu/system/files/area/department/studentaffairs/document/falling_through_the_cracks.pdf.; Bender, Katherine M.; Jaffe, David B.; Organ, Jerome M., Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns, Journal of Legal Education, Vol 66(1), 2016. 116-156. https://jle.aals.org/home/vol66/iss1/13/.;
  5. See footnote 2.
  6. See footnote 2.
  7. See footnote 2.
  8. See footnote 2.
  9. Substance Abuse & Mental Health Toolkit for Law School Students and Those Who Care About Them, American Bar Association Law Student Division, American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) and the Dave Nee Foundation, Wikimedia Commons 2015. https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/lawyer_assistance/ls_colap_mental_health_toolkit_new.authcheckdam.pdf
  10. See footnote 3.
  11. See footnote 2.
  12. See footnote 2.
  13. See footnote 2.
  14. Greenstein, Laura, 9 Ways to Fight Mental Health Stigma, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Oct. 2017. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/October-2017/9-Ways-to-Fight-Mental-Health-Stigma
  15. Jaffe, David B. & Stearns, Janet E., Two deans answer the law school wellness questions they hear the most, American Bar Association, Before the Bar Student Lawyer, March 2018. https://abaforlawstudents.com/2018/03/01/two-deans-answer-law-school-wellness-questions/.
  16. See footnote 15.
  17. See footnote 15.
  18. Layard, Richard et al., What Predicts a Successful Life? A Life-Course Model of Well-Being, The Economic Journal, Nov. 2014. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ecoj.12170.

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