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Mizzou law student brings greater awareness to mental health, substance recovery

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In 2014, a Survey of Law Student Well-Being found that nearly one in four of participating law students screened positive for anxiety and 17 percent screened positive for depression. Additionally, 6 percent reported thinking about suicide within in the last 12 months. One in five reported binge drinking twice in the past two weeks, while nine out of 10 said they had consumed alcohol in the last 30 days.

These stats—and numerous anecdotes—support the fact that law school students are vulnerable to mental health and substance abuse issues.

Jessica ChinnaduraiAt the University of Missouri School of Law, third-year student Jessica Chinnadurai is aiming to provide support to at-risk individuals by serving as a liaison between the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program and her peers. MOLAP is a free and confidential counseling program available 24/7 for members of The Missouri Bar, immediate family members who reside with them, and law students to help individuals overcome personal problems such as substance use, depression, stress and burnout.

 As liaison, Chinnadurai shares information about MOLAP and reiterates the idea that asking for help is an act of courage.

“Hope always exists, and we should continually cultivate that in one another,” Chinnadurai said.

Anne Chambers, director of the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program, says she is excited to have Chinnadurai serve as the program’s first law student liaison.

“She will help raise awareness regarding the prevalence of mental health issues in the legal profession and offer information about wellness initiatives that may benefit law students.”

Here, Chinnadurai discusses mental health and substance abuse in law schools, as well as her role of a liaison. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What mental health or substance abuse challenges do you see law students dealing with?

These challenges vary according to whether a student is a 1L, 2L or 3L, but in general, most law students are suffering from anxiety and stress related to the pressures of doing well and finding a job. Additionally, the first year of law school is full of networking and social events where alcohol is present, so it’s easy for many students to use this as an excuse to get heavily intoxicated or forget their problems. These issues remain for 2Ls and 3Ls, with the addition of these students either trying to make up for the lack of effort, or taking it “too easy” after finishing at the top of the class, the first year.

I’ve also seen law students struggling with interpersonal relationships. Communication with family and friends outside of school may be limited, which can put a strain on those connections. Law school is highly competitive, so making friends can often take a backseat to doing well academically. This can create an unhealthy and almost toxic environment for everyone.

Do you think law students feel comfortable discussing these issues?

Absolutely not. It’s ironic that lawyers are in a profession where communication is so critical, yet most students struggle with voicing their personal concerns. I think the main issue is fear: fear of judgment by others, fear that they won’t pass the character and fitness part of the bar exam, and fear that their problems cannot be fixed. At the end of the day, many students simply may not know who to go to for help.

Why do you think having a liaison position is important?

I think it is important law students know they have resources they can turn to when times get tough. A liaison can be a confidential resource to approach for basic mental health information or to be pointed in the right direction.

What do you think fellow law students would be surprised to know about MOLAP?

I have shared with the student body that MOLAP’s line for confidential help is 1-800-688-7859, but many students may not know that you can call after hours. Anne Chambers is extremely accessible; in fact, she will be coming to Mizzou’s campus Dec. 1 to hold her first “office hours” for students to set up an appointment to meet with her in person.

How can practicing lawyers show support to law students struggling with mental health or substance abuse?

I think being open is the best thing practicing lawyers can do to show support. Mentoring students can also be immensely helpful, especially for 1Ls who may feel lost or like they made the wrong choice coming to law school.

How can students at other law schools establish liaisons?

I recommend approaching the Student Bar Association, president and the dean. Students at other law schools in Missouri can also contact Anne Chambers to get more information.

This article originally appeared on The Missouri Bar website.

The Missouri Bar : The Missouri Bar is the statewide organization of licensed lawyers and is dedicated to improving the lives of Missouri citizens by increasing access to justice, advancing an effective and trusted justice system, and helping lawyers do an even better job for their clients. Created in 1944, the bar provides a range of services and resources to lawyers, as well as the media, educators and the public.