Study: Twenty-Five Percent Of Law Students Have Been Diagnosed With Depression, Disorders, and Other Mental Illnesses

Square_academic_cap_(graduation_hats)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

53 thoughts on “Study: Twenty-Five Percent Of Law Students Have Been Diagnosed With Depression, Disorders, and Other Mental Illnesses”

  1. Riesling,
    If we had treatment centers like that here in the US, we might not be so drug-addled and addicted, miserable and fearful. It would be cheaper and better for everyone.

  2. Wrxdave,
    Have you considered dietary change?

    90% of serotonin is produced with the help of bacteria in the gut. If your GI tract is plagued by detrimental bacteria, damaged by stress and problematic foods, and poorly functioning because of subclinical micro nutrient and fatty acid deficiencies, then your mind will suffer.

    Functional medicine doctors (found at the Institute for Functional Medicine) are adept at addressing chronic health issues.

    I thank my lucky stars for going to one. I feel GOOD now (had undiagnosed postpartum depression, autoimmune condition, and overall felt terrible).

  3. So true @ Hilde & Philly! My friend in Germany got to go to a former 5- star hotel on a lake in Bavaria, which is now a mental health clinic, for in-patient treatment for 5 weeks. Her therapy consisted of private and group therapy, long walks in the forest, lots of fresh air, 4 organic meals a day, yoga, tai chi. They also did blood work. I think they found a thyroid problem. She even got a new hairstyle and color! No psycho-pharma! This was mostly paid for by the state -owned insurance. That was 3 years ago and she’s still doing well- so much stronger than before.

  4. This discussion reminds me of a classic joke.

    A man who travels a great deal arrives in a new city. The man is terribly depressed; so much so that he seeks out the best psychiatrist in the city. The man meets with the psychiatrist and describes how terribly lonely, alienated, and depressed he has been feeling.

    After hearing the man, the psychiatrist suggests that the man should go to the circus. “The circus has a clown named Ronaldo, who is wonderfully funny and is sure to lift your spirits,” says the psychiatrist.

    “But I am Ronaldo,” says the man.

  5. I suppose if you take Ketamine, a horse tranquilizer, you won’t be anxious or depressed. However, you may start craving hay and oats.

  6. Right you are Hildegard. Anger is often a very good first step out of the hole.

    I have found that diet, meditation, exercise and avoiding alcohol are also very important.

    Numerous studies have shown that talk therapy is not of much use in chronic depression, but can be helpful for short term crisis management, and certainly for evaluating suicidal impulses/thoughts.

    Most of the wonder drugs SSRIs, MAO inhibitors and so on, are not much better than placebos, in most cases. Every now and then they help. Short term.

    The real experiment in drug therapy for depression is in the realm of hallucinogenics. LSD, ecstasy, Ketamine and so on. Finally getting the look they deserve, and showing incredible promise.

  7. The only cure for depression is anger but people like you better when you’re depressed so they try to make you feel guilty for being angry which often drives you back to depression which is the WRONG direction. I’ve been depressed…SERIOUSLY….for YEARS. Someone who hasn’t been – someone who has not beaten depression, has no room to talk. Depression is also an indication of physical ill health, so you gotta tackle it from all angles; mental, physical, emotional. Brain altering chemicals are NOT an option. Neither is endless analysis. If you go that route you’ll be traveling all the way back to Adam and Eve and still depressed. My humble opinion. 😉

  8. A good friend of mine did his graduate psych work at UPenn. He told me that they got the most clients from the Wharton School, followed closely by PennLaw and then the sciences. Anxiety and depression were the big ticket items, with a number of students looking for Adderol to help study and lose weight.

    After I heard from him I sent out an email to all my B-School colleagues telling them what was available at our school and encouraging anyone in need to get help. I was surprised at the number of people who wrote back thanking me, especially because it was so competitive there.

    We had a regular 3-5 student suicides a year on campus. Always after exams. This is a serious problem

  9. If attorneys-at-law can’t get their own sh*t together,what hope do we little people have with the legal system?
    So much for the expectation of a ‘fair trial’ or a ‘impassioned defense’ …

  10. Paul C

    True, each professor has his/her own unique style of teaching. That’s not what’s at issue. If JT is concerned enough about the problem–and, yes, there is, undoubtedly, a problem–to specifically address it with his students, admonishing them not refrain from seeking help and assistance, then I can only hope that he will feel the same sense of urgency to address his fellow law school professors and seek to find ways to diminish this problem from their end. It takes a great deal of humility and self-awareness to comprehend that these mental health issues, prevalent in law schools, may not be solely attributable to the type of candidate law schools appear to attract. That is a cop out. At a certain point, one needs to realize that certain occurrences do not manifest themselves in a vacuum, and the underlying source, for much of the unnecessary stress and fear–the professors, who create and perpetuate an unhealthy atmosphere–need to be dealt with, head on. Without addressing that source, just agree to load the students up with Xanax and move on. I seriously doubt that real change will ever transpire, in that many law school professors see this unhealthy atmosphere as a rite of passage, which they, themselves, endured. Address that attitude, and you now address the mental health problems within the proper scope.

  11. DBQ

    I completely get the need to have a military where the soldiers have been exposed to enough grueling training to toughen them up, so to speak. That’s not lost on me. You won’t hear me advocating for the lowering of standards or diminished requirements in the military or, in law schools, for that matter. It’s funny that you should mention the military–many people have accused law school of being somewhat similar in nature. Soldiers will, undoubtedly, experience life or death situations, so that very training, which is often harsh and brutal, serves to acclimate them to what they may be facing in the future. Contrary to what you wrote, it is not merely MY perception that law school is harsh and overly stressful. The article, presented by JT, specifically deals with the mental health problems of law students. Obviously, there is a problem that goes well beyond my personal perception. Law students have no shortage of opportunities to prepare for what will transpire in the outside world when they are attorneys with real, live clients–that is, of course, if they avail themselves to these amazing opportunities. Internships at law firms, law school clinics–which serve and represent the poor and the homeless–Moot Court, etc., all serve to prepare the students for the real world. No one is advocating for those to cease; actually, I am a big proponent of requiring law school students perform even more hours involved in these activities, not less. My point, which you may have missed, is a call for a more civilized, intellectually-based and purpose-driven law school curriculum, which does not include some of the madness and fraternity-like-Hell-Week antics which are antithetical to the true pursuit of learning the law. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

  12. Note: I don’t mean that the actual persons serving in our military are squishes. Far far from it.

    I mean that our military is not acting like a military and has become too enthralled with politically correct coddling, quotas, relaxed standards and has its hands tied behind its back by ridiculous feel good politicians who subject the military personnel to all sorts of idiotic restrictions and rules of engagement

  13. @ bam bam

    Could it be that the harsh and overly stressful atmosphere you perceive in your experience in law school is similar to that of boot camp in the military and other types of initiation situations.

    The idea is to literally break down your “civilian” mind set and mold you into a soldier who can take the stress of actual combat. The process is to weed out those who cannot adapt, who will be actual life and death liabilities in real world combat situations. The process also is supposed to build a strong bond between those who weather or survive the initial boot camp conditions. A Band of Brothers.

    There is no room in the military for “civilian” softness or mindsets that are dangerous to your comrades. This has been relaxed lately to the military’s detriment…… and this is also why our military is falling apart and becoming the squishes of the world.

    Putting the young budding lawyers through a trial by fire might be meant to prepare them for the real world when they are literally in charge of life or death situations for their clients. It isn’t necessarily inhumane if it produces good soldiers and lawyers who can cope with the emotional stresses of dealing with real live clients.

    Some people are just not suited to certain occupations. There are people who will never be suited to the military…..it is a good idea to get them to self direct into other occupations. Ditto….lawyers. Ditto….doctors.

  14. DBQ

    The comment, that I am about to make, is far from hateful and shouldn’t be viewed as such. It is merely a response to your take on the article, where I disagree with just some of what you stated. Granted, all of us experience stress, as you pointed out, and much of it is unavoidable–a part of normal, daily life. Law school, which is the subject of the article, is, I would claim, different, in that much of the stress and anxiety is created, fabricated and manufactured by the professors, themselves, and foisted upon their captive law school audience, as part of some sick ritual, mistakenly assumed to be a precious rite of passage. There simply is no place for it in the study of law, as it doesn’t advance the process and only contributes to some of these mental health issues, so the call for its removal should not be equated with wanting to turn the students into special snowflakes, as you put it. The mortgage, financial issues, the kids, the in-laws, a spouse, the economy, your job, health concerns, etc.–the list goes on and on. It’s called LIFE. We learn that certain stressors are completely out of our control, and we ultimately learn to adapt to them. The difference is that law school need not diminish its standards by adopting an approach to the study of law which is more conducive to learning and less like Hell Week in a fraternity. You miss the point with the line about special snowflakes–no one is advocating for special treatment or the lowering of academic standards. How about just normal and sane treatment for those who have decided to devote three years of their lives to the study of law? I attended a Jesuit law school, where the standards for admission were far from lax. At the end of three years, one third–yes, an entire third–did not graduate, either due to dropping out or freaking out. I mention this because these were bright, intelligent and very capable candidates when they walked through the doors at law school the first day–they weren’t there because of some kind of social experiment to see if the unqualified could get through the law school regimen. The numbers, by which the students left–many leaving due to various health problems, both mental and physical–indicate that something is drastically wrong in the law school atmosphere and in need of an overhaul. Don’t treat the students like special snowflakes–I would settle for treating them as human beings.

  15. I agree with you, DBQ. Especially since there is an easy solution to the problem: quit law school. If you´re already miserable in law school it won´t get any better when you´re working as a lawyer surrounded by people who thrived in the law school atmosphere. Who would want to spend theiir life´s careeer with such work colleages? Not even considering the fact that most lawyers have to deal with scum of the earth every day. Or insurance companies. Or people getting divorces. Ugh. But if that´s what you´re into – go for it!

  16. There were very few wakos in my law school way back in 1971. A few quit after midterm exams. We had several just in from Vietnam. We had health conversations. Nope. No wackos. Wacko has a C in it. I was slow to gain yakking skills in court but did try my first jury trial a few years out of school. It was a wonderful experience. Later, trying jury cases was the best thing I could do to be focused and enjoy an experience. No doubts, no stress. Opposite of stress. Exillerating or however ya spull that word. Now my life as a dog is to just give guidance to humans. Its sort of like giving guidance as a lawyer does. But more thorough. Like when my human pal goes into the cathouse on our trip to Amsterdam. I go with him. But I vary off to the dog cathouse right next door. We compare notes when we are done. It is better than doing a successful jury trial back in Saint Louis.

  17. “Buck up Buttercup. Life is tough. Learn to be stoic. Stop being such a squish.

    Good advice.
    The recent move in colleges to punish “microaggressions” will make people even LESS resilient than they are, and worsen this anxiety-depression vortex.

    As I said, people have gotten far less resilient over time.

  18. I guess I don’t get it. Depression I mean. I’m not trying to be unsympathetic. I’m sure that there are some people who are clinically depressed and need help……. but really…..everyone….so many? Snap out of it!

    Anxiety…..who hasn’t been anxious or worried about all sorts of things. Common stuff. Making the mortgage payment. Did I study enough for this test. My car is old and I’m anxious about taking a long drive? Should I buy milk or gasoline….I can’t afford both? New shoes for me or my child? The list of common anxieties goes on and on and on.

    Make a decision, chose. Figure out what your problem is and then either solve it or live with it. Move on.

    When I was in the biz I would be unable to sleep at night sometimes when the markets were crashing (like now…thank GOD, I’m retired) or there was a crisis with some of my clients….worrying about my clients, what should I do, what CAN I do, how can I make them safe., worrying about my business, my family’s well being and everything else. You either lay there and wallow or tell yourself that you can do NOTHING until the morning. You can fix NOTHING at 3am……. Go back to sleep and have a plan for the next day and then ACT on it.

    That is anxiety. Anxiety is normal. If you aren’t anxious….you are brain dead or really DEAD.

    Most law students, in this study, are young people and who have not much experience in life and as such each set back in their personal lives becomes tragic and melodramatic. Is law school stressful. Sure. LIFE is stressful. Everyone is stressed and the budding law students aren’t special snowflakes.

    You know who is stressed and anxious. The minimum wage guy or single mother trying to support their family on crap wages and facing the milk or gasoline choice and watching the cost of everything go up up up. One paycheck from being homeless or bankrupt. I’ve been there and it isn’t pretty.

    Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more drinks in a row for women.

    Seriously? That’s it?

    So you have a few drinks once in a while. Big whoop. As long as it isn’t an everyday thing. As long as it doesn’t interfere with your ability to work, study, take care of business….so what. Sure if you are knocking back a 12 pack or a quart of booze at a time on a daily basis, then you do have a problem and need to get some counseling. AA is good.

    It doesn’t hurt to have someone to talk to about your problems. Someone who can possibly get you to see that you aren’t the only one. That others are facing the same issues. Talk to….help you come up with some methods to cope…….not whine and wallow.

    Buck up Buttercup. Life is tough. Learn to be stoic. Stop being such a squish.

    Let the hate begin. I’m stoic. I can take it 😉

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