Law Student Wellness Awareness

As most are aware, the New York Times published an essay on July 15, 2017, entitled, “The Lawyer, the Addict” recounting the writer’s tragic loss of her lawyer-loved one to drug-overdose.  A significant part of the tragedy was that the lawyer successfully hid the addiction for years.  As we consider programming for Fall Semester orientation and beyond, this is a good time to give more consideration to addressing depression, anxiety, substance abuse and addiction among law students. 

In this regard, I strongly encourage downloading and taking a look at the “Substance Abuse & Mental Health Kit for Law Students and Those Who Care About Them”,” put together by the ABA Law Student Division, the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs, and the Dave Nee Foundation. The ABA Law Student Division has also created a web site and begun compiling links to resources for law students under Mental Health Resources.

The 2016 Report, published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine referenced in the NY Times, reports on the significant numbers of lawyers affected by depression, substance abuse and addiction as well as the numbers of law students affected.  And, as so many articles and the 2016 Report note, in law students, the driven qualities that propel students to go to law school; law school’s consuming demands; law school anxiety and stress; competition, and the prospective (or lack of prospective) job market, all affect, and perhaps negatively affect, law student mental health.  These issues are all compounded by the stigma attached to “others.”

At law schools, we still deal with the student as a person, a pre-professional.  As Scott Fruehwald noted in a posting on the importance of professional identity training, law school is a prime time of both crisis and potential growth if students are well-guided.  However, as Louis Schulze noted on the Faculty Lounge Blog, “Ask not what you can do for your students, ask what your students can do for themselves,” students have to come by their learning as well as their personal identity ultimately on their own.  Being responsible for one’s own learning, being responsible for one’s well-being, and being responsible for gaining and keeping sobriety are ultimately not things that are externally controlled.

Recognizing there is a problem and that we cannot solve it by mandating compliance, what are some things we can do so that our students are open to and can achieve their own stability and appropriate level of sobriety?   What can we provide that students can themselves use? The ABA Health Kit has some suggestions worth noting here.  For example, it suggests:

1.       Think about the problem; create and have a strategy; make students aware; reduce stigma so students will take make use of the strategies, and follow through. Make the issues and assistance “present.”

2.       Provide and encourage Lawyers Assistance Program access;

3.       Have an on-campus counselor;

4.       Limited self-disclosure. Most Anonymous Meetings begin with, “Hi, I’m (name), and I’m (whatever the concern).  For anyone who has ever been to one of these meetings – and, yes, I have been in celebration – the mere existence of others similarly situated is itself very powerful. 

5.       Provide links and access to resources – many of which can be found in the Health Kit, others of which can be found in Scott’s article, through the ABA or your state bar, through various mental health advocacy  and disability advocacy sites or through any Anonymous site.  There are even NA and AA meeting locator apps.

6.       Learn about and provide guidance for gaining and maintaining a healthy life.

The Health Kit also notes some other things law schools have done or are already doing to promote wellness.  Those include providing access to a mental health professional and then, coordinating with student affairs to create various programs (plural) throughout the year to introduce that person and then create occasions for students to interact with that person such as “let’s talk,” or “how to bounce back,” events. 

Other ideas include Family Fun Day; Wellness Fair or Wellness Day with structured events including speakers from the local LAP, strategies for time management, diets, as well as activities such as yoga, resiliency training, and chair massages.  (I admit to liking this last.)  Some schools, ours included, have had “Puppy Love” opportunities – most recently here as a stress-reliever before the bar exam.  (Hypo-allergenic only)

On the more serious side, some schools have integrated LAP programs or one credit “courses” throughout the curriculum with a different focus each year.  Two possible syllabi are included near the end of the Health Kit, one by Marjoire A. Silver from Touro Law Center, and one prepared by the ABA CLAP.

Law Student mental health, substance abuse and addiction are personal to me.  I cannot tell you the number of students who have passed through my doors over the decades who were and are vulnerable.  What are other schools doing?  Do you have plans? Programs? Access?  Course work you would share?  Other?


3 Responses

  1. At Emory Law, we do many of the activities and programs you mention. We have a licensed mental health counselor on my team who also manages our disability-related accommodations and our innovative Houses program (“Houses” are learning communities). We have Wellness Week in early-mid February, after fall grades come out, when we talk about academic and personal resilience and offer special programs for students to learn how to take better care of themselves: nutrition, stress management, exercise, meditation, etc.. We keep multiple handouts available to students, faculty and staff 24/7, including the Health Kit and materials created for us by the Dave Nee Foundation when they have come to present their wonderful Uncommon Counsel program. We are fortunate that Emory University as a whole provides excellent student counseling, to which we can refer our students. We are also lucky that our students themselves are willing to find one of us to share a concern about a classmate. Truly, it takes a village to have a healthy law school community!
    Katherine Brokaw J.D., Assistant Dean, Emory Law School

    • Thanks. I’d love to know more about “houses.” Sounds as though you work on the idea of a “healthy” law school community from various perspectives and from the beginning of school. I’m sure being part of a university makes providing student counseling easier. Good to know some of the Health Kit suggestions have proven valuable. – Pam

  2. Very good information. Vital for the for the future health of the profession.

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