Our Students are Stressed; Exercise Compassion

At the best of times, the life of a law student is stressful. Law students, like lawyers, are over-represented in reported statistics of depression and anxiety. Because law schools know the pressure their students are under, it has become common practice to provide stress-reducing interventions – mindfulness training and yoga classes come to mind.

This November, the political climate and an enduring pandemic will add to the high baseline of anxiety and depression that law students experience.

The 2020 election, at the very least, will feel like the most consequential election our students have experienced. Students will, of course, be aware of the political discord that is dividing our country. The discord may also be dividing their friendships and families. For young people finding their way in life, this is unsettling.

Law students may engage in behaviors that give them a sense of control over the election outcome. This is a good thing and should be encouraged. They can vote (assuming they are not casualties of some vote suppression strategies), support the candidate of their choice, or work at the polls. But even doing these basic things, the outcome of the election is likely to feel uncertain, uncontrollable and yet highly significant for students’ future. The combination of these factors is recipe for stress.

Compounding the electoral stress is the global pandemic. The coronavirus has disrupted students’ education, turned the typical law school experience on its head, and ripped away the one thing we all need when feeling anxious and depressed – a social network we can talk to, gain support from, and re-center our perspective of the future. And remember those mindfulness and yoga classes designed to help students’ well-being? Without being on campus or in the classroom, those have been relegated to afterthoughts for law school.

These are the reasons why now more than ever we need to exercise compassion. Compassion is more than empathy, an ability to take the perspective of others, to understand what law students are feeling. That’s a start. But compassion is when our feelings motive us to help alleviate at least some of their suffering.

Here are four things I’ve identified that I can do to support my students. Please feel free to share your own ideas by commenting on this post.

  • Laughter: Organize a lighthearted online pop quiz with your students. Inject humor into some of the material they should review. Avoid political humor, of course. Don’t worry if you’re not a trained comedian. Laughing at yourself for creating such bad jokes is also stress reducing.  As you can probably guess, there are many online resources to consult for anything from the best legal puns to the worst dad jokes.
  • Exercise: The thing we least want to do is often what we should do. As the weather turns colder – at least in my State – exercise becomes less appealing. But the science has become undeniable – exercise reduces stress. Assign a podcast and encourage your students to listen to it while exercising. Have students share their methods for working exercise into their day. Some of my students shared their plans to “commute” to class everyday – walking from and to their apartments before and after class.
  • Support the Right to Vote: If you haven’t already, give your students the Day off on Nov. 3rd, with no make-up class required.
  • Support each other: When we are kind, generous, and supportive of our friends and colleagues, we can make a difference in their well-being. I usually have my clinical students review their peers at the end of the semester. Each student provides me with their feedback for each of their peers. They must answer two questions. First, what do you admire most about Student A. Second, what is one thing Student A could do to improve. Each year I give this assignment, I’m amazed by how thoughtful my students are. And after I compile the feedback and communicate it to my students in an end of semester meeting, my students seem overwhelmed by the admiration and positive feelings their peers have for them. Of course, if you are teaching a larger class where students don’t get to know each other well, you could be the one to deliver a positive message about something you admire about them.   

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