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Legal Education Needs a Wellness Reckoning

April 7, 2021, 8:01 AM

Her heart is racing and her body is shaking. Her throat closes and it’s difficult to breathe. She feels nauseous. She hates herself for feeling this way, but she can’t control it. She wants to tell her friends, but she’s afraid they won’t understand and will view her differently. She needs to maintain the competent law student image—the person on track to a law degree and bar license.

“Lauren” is a law student with a secret problem. She knows that most law students feel stressed and some even admit to being despondent at times. Lauren feels more than that. Her panic attacks are debilitating and she fears that seeking help could derail her law career. Like many law students, Lauren has tried to handle this on her own. She tells herself that law school is intended to push students to their intellectual limits. She convinces herself that she just needs to keep going until she reaches her goal.

No one goes to law school with the expectation that their mental health and overall well-being will be significantly compromised during those three years. But, for a substantial number of law students, it is. It does not have to be this way.

Depression, Suicidal Thoughts

According to the Dave Nee Foundation, most law students begin law school with a psychological profile similar to that of the general public, with depression rates at less than 10%. But, after just one semester, depression rates rise to 27%. After two semesters, the rate spikes to 34% and after three years, up to 40% of law students experience depression.

Tragically, a study of 3,000 law students found that 21% reported serious thoughts of suicide in their lifetimes and 6% had seriously considered suicide in the 12 months before the survey. And, while anxiety and depression may manifest in law school, it does not end there.

Lawyers have the dubious distinction of being among the most depressed professionals in the U.S., and the legal profession ranks among the highest in incidence of suicide by occupation.

Covid-19, Racial Violence Play a Role

What is it about law school that contributes to the disproportionate decline in student wellness? The answer is paradoxical because many of the very factors that make good lawyers, such as perfectionism and the need to control, also contribute to their mental health challenges.

Two major events have exacerbated this already dire landscape of wellness dysfunction: Covid-19 and racial violence. For students who managed their mental health challenges in part by having the structure of a classroom setting and nearby counseling services, sustained isolation and remote instruction during the pandemic have led to reports of increased depression and anxiety.

Law students are not immune to the recent surge of racial violence in the U.S. and Asian American individuals have been targets of increased hate incidents during the pandemic. The recent killings of six Asian women follow the spate of police killings of Black people, including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others.

These tragic deaths have surely caused some law students to experience race-based stress and trauma. The absence of a culture of wellness in law schools may lead law students to endure these dual pandemics in silence.

As recently recognized by the American Bar Association in its call for comments on standards concerning mental health and substance abuse among law students, it is time for a wellness reckoning in legal education. Just as movements have galvanized the public to demand action on issues of racial injustice, gender equality, and climate change, so the legal profession must take steps to comprehensively address the wellness crisis spanning the lecture halls to practice.

A Blueprint for Action on Wellness

More than a general call to action, legal education needs a new step-by-step blueprint of how to reimagine legal education with a focus on wellness. Actions must begin with leaders in legal education challenging ourselves to become modelers of wellness as well as teachers of law.

A priority on wellness must be introduced before students begin law school by better informing incoming students and their families of the expectations and predictable stressors of law school.

Orientation programs can be designed to integrate robust wellness activities, where students learn of the current wellness landscape in the legal profession and develop wellness practices to help them manage their daily stressors.

But, wellness support for students cannot end with orientation. Self-care practices must be reinforced throughout law school and integrated into the curriculum. In other words, law schools should play a primary role in normalizing discussions and actions around the mental and physical care of its students.

Law schools must also take steps to proactively address race-based stress and trauma experienced by students of color. Schools can create supportive communities and spaces for students of color to share experiences.

Schools can also provide allyship training to address race-based stress and the trauma of “otherism” in law school.

These changes must be long-term and profoundly impact the well-being of not only law students, but the very practice of law itself. There will be resistance, but making this transition to a culture of wellness is crucial. The legal profession, indeed our lives, literally depend on it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Janet Thompson Jackson is a law professor at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas, where she directs the Small Business and Nonprofit Law Clinic, teaches nonprofit law, and is helping to lead the law school’s new initiative, Third Year Anywhere™. She previously hosted the monthly PBS community affairs series called “I’ve Got Issues,” and has been a regular guest on the show.

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