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Elephant in the room: Mental health and substance abuse in law school

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Elephant in the Room

We all deal with the stress of law school in different ways. Some students wear it as a “badge of honor” or a “rite of passage,” some joke about it with their friends and others quietly accept it. A surprising few, however, look at their mental state as a serious issue.

Underneath all the stress and pressure of law school, deeper, more serious mental health issues can exist. In a 2014 ABA survey conducted among law students, 17% of students screened positive for depression, 23% of students screened positive for mild to moderate anxiety, and 14% of students screened positive for severe anxiety. Of the same survey, 43% of of students reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks, 22% of students reported binge drinking two or more times in the prior two weeks, and nearly 25% of students affirmatively answered two or more of four questions that comprise the CAGE assessment, a widely used alcoholism screening tool. Another study found that 44% of law students meet the criteria for clinically significant levels of psychological distress.

Talking mental health at Annual

At the ABA Annual Meeting, the Law Student Division will host “Mindfulness: Creating a Healthy Lifestyle for Law Students” with Jeena Cho, a nationally renowned speaker on psychological self-care in the legal profession. The event will focus on how students can develop a healthy lifestyle while in law school through wellness, self-care and mindfulness.

As striking as those numbers are, there is an equally significant problem: The number of students who, in light of their psychological symptoms, don’t seek help. In a survey conducted by the ABA, 42% of respondents indicated that in the past year they had thought they needed help for mental health or emotional problems; of that number, roughly half had actually received counseling from a health professional. In a similar study by Yale Law School, 70% of students indicated that they had experienced mental health challenges while in law school: in this case, less than half of those students sought treatment.  Both of these surveys indicated that potential threat to bar admission, social stigma and concerns about privacy were among the main concerns discouraging respondents from seeking help.

Cognizant of the high number of law students experiencing mental health and substance abuse issues, it is increasingly important that we are proactive and focus on our own self-care and mental wellness. The most important factor in doing so is knowing when to get help. This point is usually when we experience one or more of the symptoms here (“Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse,” “Signs and Symptoms of an Episode of Depression,” “Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety,” “Signs and Symptoms of Stress,” and “Panic Attack or Anxiety?”) to an extent that interferes with our schoolwork, personal life or health. Many law schools offer free services for students seeking help for mental health and substance abuse problems. You can look to your school’s website or online portal to see what programs your school offers. If you cannot readily find information there, there is a list of external resources available to law students here (“Resources: Seeking Treatment”).

As you will see, the reasons not to explore treatment if you suspect you may be experiencing mental health or substance abuse issues are, quite honestly, moot.

First, pursuing treatment will almost certainly not determine your chances of passing the character and fitness examination of the bar. This portion of the bar application is meant to to determine whether an applicant has permanent or present conditions that make them unfit to practice law in their respective state. If anything, seeking treatment to manage any symptoms that might interfere with one’s personal or professional life may be necessary to be fit to practice law in a given state. More so, taking such responsibility for one’s health evidences strength of character. As the Board of Law Examiners of the State of North Carolina puts it:

“Applicants should be aware that the Board looks favorably on applicants’ self-recognition of their need for treatment and appropriate utilization of professional services.”

The same applies for those seeking treatment of substance abuse problems. As the Georgia Office of Bar Admissions puts it:

“Your recognition of the problem and your treatment record will be the best evidence you have of rehabilitation, regardless of the seriousness of any misconduct which may have arisen from the chemic dependency.”

Second, there is a growing culture and trend toward the destigmatization of counseling and mental health issues. As shown by the studies mentioned above, almost half of law students feel that they have some sort of mental or emotional health issue which requires professional help. In addition to the fact that most law schools’ mental health programs are completely confidential, a significant portion of law students are already seeking professional help or desire to do so. Taking the initiative to explore potential mental health or substance abuse concerns reflects the type of proactivity and strength of character we should strive for as legal professionals.

Finally, most programs offered by schools are completely private: in some programs, students’ personal information is not even provided to the school. Also, similar to the attorney-client relationship, what one discusses with a medical professional is privileged.

In conclusion, there is a growing problem with the rate of depression, anxiety and substance abuse among law students. With this problem, though, comes a message: students who are experiencing these issues are not alone, and there are many resources available to help. For more information, see the Law Student Division’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Toolkit.

John Louros John Louros is a rising third-year law student at New York Law School. He is the current Secretary-Treasurer of the Law Student Division, the incoming Law Student Member of the ABA Board of Governors and the Student Bar Association President at New York Law School.