There is an interesting survey published this month on mental health and substance use issues for law students. The Bar Examiner report (available here) found that a quarter of all law students had been diagnosed at some point for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis, personality disorder or substance use disorder. I am not surprised by the figure and speak every year to my classes about dealing the mental health and dependency issues as part of my first year classes. I try to tell them that there is no barrier to practice for students who have these issues. Indeed, the real danger is found among students who ignore these issues in the highly pressured legal profession.
There is one worrisome element in the study, though again not a surprising element. Forty-two percent of the surveyed law students said they thought they needed help in the past year for emotional or mental health problems, but only half of that group had actually received counseling from a health professional. In addition, only 4 percent had sought help from a health professional for drug or alcohol problems. That is the biggest problem facing law schools and bars. Law students and lawyers are often afraid to get help in the erroneous belief that either it could harm their standing in the profession or such problems means that they cannot be top practitioners.
The fact is that there are a large number of law professors and lawyers at the very top of our profession who have come forward to admit to such issues, particularly the very common problem of depression. The struggle with things like depression is dangerous is done without some assistance. The insidious aspect of depression is that it is an illness that robs people of the will to pursue recovery or awareness that they are really not in control. Many insist that they “can handle it” even though you can see that they cannot. As bad as a broken arm may be, the bone does not convince the victim to avoid medical treatment. Indeed, physical injuries give constant remainders of the need for treatment. Illnesses like depression distort the perspective of individuals who can reject the need for medication despite everyone around them begin them to accept the help. It is all the more tragic because these medications are now highly effective to return people to productive and fulfilling lives. The bar has a terrific record in supporting lawyers with mental health or dependency problems. I have seen both up close in both lawyer and non-lawyers.
What is remarkable about this survey is that it covered more than 3,300 law students at 15 law schools of different sizes and geographic locations responded to the survey, which included screening questions for depression and anxiety. The authors also found that twenty-three percent of the respondents screened positive for mild to moderate anxiety, and 14 percent screened positive for severe anxiety. Twenty-one percent said they had been diagnosed with anxiety at some point in their lives. Some 22 percent reported binge drinking two or more times in the prior two weeks. (Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more drinks in a row for women.)
This is an important report that I will be mentioning to my students in emails and in class this week. Once we can remove the stigma of such illness, we can make further strides in getting law students and lawyers the help that they need to live productive and happy lives.
Source: ABA Journal