Mental Health & Law Students

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Mental Health and Lawyers
Mental Health and Law Students

Law Students Wake Up Call


Depression and anxiety are common health concerns among law students. Some may begin their academic law degree with a preexisting mental health condition, while others may develop symptoms while in law school; either way, if untreated, these symptoms and diagnosis can intensify due to the cut-throat competitive culture. According to Zaretsky's (2016) article on Jaffe and Bender's study, "More than one in six had been diagnosed with depression while in law school. Thirty-seven percent of law students screened positive for anxiety, and 14 percent of them met the definition of severe anxiety. Depression, coupled with severe anxiety, can lead to alcohol and drug abuse, and 22 percent of law student survey respondents reported that they were binge drinkers."


In accordance with the authors from ABA, CoLAP and the Dave Nee Foundation, there are some potential root causes of why law students are developing distressful mental health symptoms, and for some, a clinical diagnosis accordingly:


1) Expectations are crushed - first of all, typically, 90% of the class doesn't land their dream job, as statistics will show the top 10% are the ones getting a job during their 3L, leaving 90% to hustle at a tenfold. What separates the 90% will be a crucial factor. Not only do they have to compete within their school, but also across the other law schools within the city/state they are seeking work. Adding to their crushed expectations is the realization it takes more than a passion to help, the truth is the practice of law is an art and science as it comes down to who can make the best argument, with supportive "evidence" of course (law case examples, etc.). In the end, the law student has to be able to adapt to the pressures, the competitive culture, and the process of arguing cases to survive and thrive the implications on their mental health; building resilience.


2) Another critical reason for burnout and mental distress is a law student's unbalanced lifestyle. Law students are notorious for living mostly at the library, given all the reading they have to do, especially to be ready for the intimidating cold calls. So, what makes the law student's "unbalanced" life unhealthy? It's very one-sided for three full years plus all the pressure, resulting in not socializing, not sleeping enough, not eating healthy, not exercising, etc. Though these symptoms are not uncommon across people in general, the level of distress the law students experiences is significantly different, such as the aforementioned variables including: the pressures (from the student, loved ones, etc.), competition, the constant sense of be "on" (A game), the intimidation of professors, the identity taken on (if limiting), isolation, etc. 


3) The balance referred here is not literal; instead, it's every person finding a way not to neglect the other parts of their life and identity. Some may argue, there is plenty of time after graduating to get back in tune with their "life" and who they were, and yes, you can call this a sacrifice, which can be a positive trait in getting what you want. After all, driven, determined, and ambitious are positive traits. But at what expense? Can you give "100%" and still include and nurture other areas of your life, of course. Everyone's version of balance will be different. Just start with knowing you should be taking care of your well being now not tomorrow after you graduate; after all, the habits you form (vicious cycle) while in school will remain with you as you go on into your career. Don't risk having a mental break down. You can't afford the setback, and for some, it can be critical, leading to hospitalization and even death (suicide). 


Coming back full circle; some of you still think, "I don't have time to balance my life while in law school because that will ruin my competitive edge; not necessarily. Consider your false fallacies, "it must be_______," "I must_________," "All law students _____________" When ____________ then this ____________" etc. I know this can be challenging, as you have grown accustomed to "the law student lifestyle," believing it to be the "only" way. But the law is not black and white, life is not black and white, and success is not black and white." Be mindful and recognize there is more to you than just a law student. Though your experiences have shaped your present and even your future, it is how you frame those that make a difference. So, take charge, practice mindfulness, and know that your investment is in yourself, not simply the degree as you make your career, which is based on who you are (identity), going beyond just a simple law student (utilizing culture and diversities; past successes, knowledge, and skills; and strengths and resources accordingly ).


Your career heavily relies on being mentally sharp; therefore, your investment into your mental health wellness should be just as critical in your law school academia journey to not only survive but to also thrive. 


The following lists and resources were extracted from:


Dispelling Myths about Mental Health 


  • Mental illness is not due to personal weakness or inadequate will-power.
  • Mental health is integral to and inseparable from overall health.
  • Chemical regulators in the brain called neurotransmitters are responsible for sending messages between nerve cells. Research has demonstrated that impaired regulation of key neurotransmitters correlates with both mental illness symptoms and physical symptoms such as pain.
  • Like other medical conditions, mental health illnesses fall along a continuum in terms of duration and severity; some types of mental 


Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

Is my drinking / drug use: 

  • Interfering with my work according to my clients, associates, or support personnel? 
  • Filling a need to face certain situations? 
  • Often done alone? 
  • Causing me to have memory loss? 
  • Decreasing my ambition or efficiency? 
  • Necessary before meetings or court appearances to calm my nerves, gain courage, or improve performance? 
  • Increasing in quantity / frequency and something I believe I need to hide? 
  • Causing me to miss closings, court appearances or other appointments? 
  • Making me feel guilty, depressed and anxious? 
  • Interfering with my personal relationships: my family, friends and my personal well-being? 
  • Leading me to questionable environments or acquaintances? 
  • Causing me to neglect my office administration or misuse funds? 
  • Forcing me to become increasingly reluctant to face my clients and colleagues? 
  • Leading me to lie to hide the amount I am consuming? 
  • Making me feel shaky, sick or fatigued the next day? 


Signs and Symptoms of an Episode of Depression 

(If experienced for two weeks, representing a change from a students normal mood) 


• Poor appetite or overeating • Low energy or fatigue • Sleep disturbances 


• Feeling hopeless • Low self-esteem • Self-critical thoughts • Feeling that no one values you • Feeling no purpose to existence • Recurring thoughts of death Academic • Decreased motivation • Difficulty concentrating 


• Feeling sad, empty, alone, or hopeless • Excessive crying • Excessive worrying • Feeling more tense or anxious than usual • Overreacting to situations 


• Decreased interest in activities you enjoy • Decreased trust in others • Easily irritated • Wanting to spend time alone • Difficulty relating to people 

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety 


• Dizziness or faintness • Dry mouth/thirst • Fatigue • Gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea/ constipation) • Headaches • Hyperactivity • Hypertension (high blood pressure) • Hyperventilation • Knotted stomach/ tense muscles • Loss or increase in appetite • Nausea/vomiting • Rapid or irregular heartbeat • Sexual problems • Shaking hands or tremors • Shortness of breath or chest tightness • Sweating (especially of the palms) • Tingling in extremities (“pins and needles” feeling) 

Psychological • Aggressiveness • Compulsive shopping • Difficulty concentrating/inability to focus • Disruptive eating (over- /under-eating) • Fear or panic • Feeling apprehensive or worried • Hyper-alert (easily startled/jumpiness) • Impatience • Inability to relax • Increased smoking or alcohol consumption • Irritability • Isolation • Reckless behavior • Restlessness • Sleep disturbances 
Signs and Symptoms of Stress 


• Headaches • Tight muscles • Back or neck problems • Sleep disturbances • Stomach distress • Change in appetite • More colds and infections • Fatigue • Rapid breathing and heart rate • Shortness of breath • Dry mouth/thirst • Sexual performance problems 


• Memory difficulties/forgetfulness • Indecisiveness • Racing thoughts • Difficulty falling asleep • Difficulty concentrating • Poor judgment • Fears of failure • Self-criticism 


• Feeling out of control • Overwhelmed • Irritated and angry • Anxious • Restless • Helpless • Trapped • Hopeless • Desperate 


• Crying • “Snapping” or picking fights • Alcohol/drug use • Skipping or sleeping through class • Acting impulsively • Losing things (i.e., cell phone, keys) • Forgetting important meetings and appointments 


Signs that Someone May Be At Risk for Suicide 

  • Talking directly or indirectly about suicide or wanting to die
  • Creation of a suicide plan – the more specific the plan, the more serious the threat
  • Suffering from serious depression
  • Experiencing changes in academic or job performance or behavior
  • Engaging in other actions that could potentially cause harm to self, including taking too many pills
  • Purposely injuring one’s self (such as cutting or burning)
  • Taking unnecessary or life-threatening risks (e.g., driving recklessly)
  • Reporting a history of suicide attempts or gestures
  • Saying goodbye to friends or giving away prized possessions
  • Shifting from serious depression to sudden happiness – this might be a sign of deciding to “take care of problems” by committing suicide 


Unhealthy Ways to Cope With Stress:

  • Compulsive Behavior - overindulging in eating, drinking, gambling, sex, drugs, work, etc.
  • Impulsive Behavior - irrational behavior, acting without thinking of the consequences
  • Withdrawing - from friends, family, hobbies (often a sign of depression)
  • Substance abuse
  • Irrational Worry - Do you have control over the subject of concern? Has it occurred yet or are you projecting a catastrophe? Avoidance - suffering from the stressor instead of dealing with it. Includes doing things that take you out of your emotions, thoughts, “right mind”; anything that you lose yourself in, including the internet, gambling, drinking, sex, pornography, etc. 
  • Procrastination 


Healthy Ways to Cope With Stress:

Exercise to relieve tension, improve your mood, and release endorphins! See diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495

  • Practice relaxation techniques. Try meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or muscle relaxation. Whenever you feel tense, slowly breathe in calmness and breathe out tension for a few minutes.
  • Be easy on yourself.
  • Make sleep a priority.
  • Find a quiet and peaceful place and go there - in person or in your head.
  • Keep a journal - or even just a list - and write out what is stressing or worrying you.
  • Talk to a close friend or family member about your stress.
  • Become aware of your own reactions to stress.
  • Let go of negative, discouraging self-talk. Avoid the “snowball” effect of dwelling on the negative.
  • Learn from past “mistakes” and move forward
  • Focus on your good qualities and accomplishments.
  • Develop assertive behaviors.
  • Think about what has brought you joy in the past – hobbies/things you have always wanted to try. Recognize that there may be time constraints with school, so plan accordingly, rather than over scheduling and becoming more anxious that you don’t have time. Example: you always wanted to go hiking but are not ready to commit too much time early-on? Start by reading up on the hike, and maybe start walking to build up endurance. Plan ahead for a day trip after mid-terms or finals.
  • Maintain a daily balanced diet.
  • Change worry into action. Focus on the next step.
  • Learn to use your time wisely.
  • When studying for an exam, study in short blocks, and stay focused. Take frequent, short breaks.
  • Make a weekly schedule and try to follow it.
  • Set realistic goals. Take one step at a time.
  • Avoid unnecessary competition. Understand healthy competitiveness.
  • Recognize and accept your limits. Remember that everyone is unique and different. NOTE: Be aware of the danger of using drugs such as Adderall that have not been prescribed to you.


Active Minds,, a student-organized support group with chapters at a number of law schools

Addiction Recovery Resources for the Professional:

Alcoholics Anonymous:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

American Medical Association:

American Psychology Association:

Directory of State and Local Lawyer Assistance Programs:

Mental Health America:

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

“The Devastation of Depression: Lawyers are at Greater Risk--It’s an Impairment to Take Seriously”, by Michael J. Sweeney:


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