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Tommy Sangchompuphen: Seeking Help Shows Strength

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I suffer from depression and have had instances of suicidal thoughts. I’ve had to live with those challenges since I was a young child. Fortunately, I’m alive today, doing well, and as happy as I’ve ever been. But the journey to where I am today hasn’t always been the easiest.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Approximately 130 Americans die by suicide each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only half of all Americans who experience an episode of major depression actually receive treatment.

The numbers are even more startling for those in the legal profession. The legal profession has the 11th-highest incidence of suicide among professions. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers, according to the American Psychological Association.

It wasn’t until after law school that I fully understood the extent of my mental health challenges. I wish I’d known sooner.

Growing up in a traditional Asian family, I felt tremendous pressure to be successful, both academically and professionally. Opening up about my mental health concerns to my parents was a topic not to be discussed. I found it easier to ignore symptoms.

Then I went to Yale for college and Columbia for graduate school. Again, the pressures of succeeding forced me to deny my emotional well-being.

When I started law school, the same pressures followed. But they intensified.

I didn’t know any lawyers before I went to law school. I saw the dominant traits in the legal profession as strength, power, and invulnerability. I saw lawyers as stoic figures who tirelessly worked on behalf of their clients without any distractions about their own well-being.

I believed that asking for assistance in law school or admitting that I was having mental health challenges was a sign of weakness that I wasn’t supposed to display as a soon-to-be lawyer.

I believed that seeking counseling would result in a negative mark on the character and fitness application. I believed that every 60-minute counseling session I could have attended meant 60 fewer minutes I could have prepared for class.

How dangerously misguided

I wish I’d known how wrong I was in law school. Seeking mental health treatment is sign of strength that represents courage, awareness, and proactive measures to prevent a worsening situation.

I wish I’d known how important getting help was in law school and continues to be. And I wish I’d known about the plethora of resources available to me and other students—resources that I seemingly ignored while I was in law school.

For example, most academic institutions have counseling centers to help their students. All states have lawyer assistance programs. While those may vary in terms of available resources and services, most offer confidential counseling and referrals for law students and bar applicants who are struggling with substance abuse, stress, or mental health issues.

Of course, the ABA raises awareness of mental health issues with its Law Student Mental Health Week each October, its Mental Health Toolkit, and other resources that you can find on its website.

Over the past year, top athletes have publicly prioritized their mental health. In May 2021, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing concerns for her mental health. Shortly thereafter, the G.O.A.T. in gymnastics, Simone Biles, voluntarily sat out several events at the Tokyo Olympics. Other prominent athletes, like Michael Phelps, quickly voiced their support, which seems to have led to a shift in the narrative of mental health in sports.

Let’s rethink this

There needs to be a similar shift in the narrative of mental health in the legal profession.

Lawyers and law professors, like me, can help normalize conversations about mental health in the legal profession through leading by example.

By sharing my personal story of vulnerability, I hope I can touch just one law student needing help and prevent that person from saying, “I wish I’d known.”

Tommy Sangchompuphen Tommy Sangchompuphen is a former student editor for Student Lawyer. He is currently the associate dean for student learning at Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law in Knoxville, Tenn. In that role, he helps students identify and strengthen their academic abilities throughout law school and provides assistance to students and graduates as they prepare for the bar exam.