Law students start law school with high life satisfaction and strong mental health measures. But within the first year of law school, they experience a significant increase in anxiety and depression. Research suggests that law students are among the most dissatisfied, demoralized, and depressed of any graduate student population.
The 2016 Survey of Law Student Well-Being found troublesome rates of alcohol use, anxiety, depression, and illegal drug use at law schools across the country. Equally worrisome is students’ level of reluctance to seek help for those issues. A large majority of students (about 80 percent) said that they were somewhat or very likely to seek help from a health professional for alcohol, drug, or mental health issues, but few actually did. For example, while 42 percent thought that they had needed help for mental health problems in the prior year, only about half of that group actually received counseling from a health professional. Only four percent said they had ever received counseling for alcohol or drug issues—even though a quarter were at risk for problem drinking.
The top factors that students reported as discouraging them from seeking help were concerns that it would threaten their bar admission, job, or academic status; social stigma; privacy concerns; financial reasons; belief that they could handle problems on their own; and not having enough time. Students’ general reluctance to seek help may be one factor explaining why law student wellness has not changed significantly since the last student survey in the 1990s. It appears that recommendations stemming from the 1993 survey either were not implemented or were not successful.
The Survey of Law Student Well-Being did not seek to identify the individual or contextual factors that might be contributing to students’ health problems. It is important to root out such causes to enable real change. For example, law school graduates cite heavy workload, competition, and grades as major law school stressors. Others in the legal community have offered additional insights about common law school practices, which are discussed below. Law school well-being initiatives should not be limited to detecting disorders and enhancing student resilience. They also should include identifying organizational practices that may be contributing to the problems and assessing what changes can be made to support student well-being. If legal educators ignore the impact of law school stressors, learning is likely to be suppressed and illness may be intensified.
The above reflects a need for both prevention strategies to address dysfunctional drinking and misuse of substances as well as promotion strategies that identify aspects of legal education that can be revised to support well-being. The recommendations below offer some ideas for both.