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Archive for March, 2016

As law students and the study of law are my life’s work, I decided that the time has come to give students more of a voice on this blog. With that aim in mind, I’m trialing the idea of inviting a student or students to become guest editors and posters.  First up is my 1L research assistant, Erica Burgos.  In her first post, she discusses the implications of the recent ABA survey of current rates of substance abuse and mental health issues among lawyers.

Erica Burgos cropped

Erica Burgos

As a current 1L at Chicago-Kent, I can personally attest to the challenges that first year law students face. Classes are more fast-paced, cold calling is terrifying and homework has consumed most of our lives.  With one semester and a series of exams already under our belts, many of us feel as though law school is not insurmountable.

That being said, the first semester was far from a being a breeze and this semester has proven to be just as difficult. It’s not just the substantive material itself that makes the first year of law school difficult. It’s the entire process in and of itself. We’ve all heard that law school is meant to teach us how to think like lawyers but it wasn’t until I stepped through the doors on the first day of class that I began to realize just how difficult it would be to change the way I think. Law school changes the way you think about the law but it also has changed the way I see school. For many of us, the old “flying by the seat of our pants” approach to studying that we learned in undergrad just isn’t going to cut it. We also had to change the way we thought about our schedules and our social lives. At this point in our law school careers, most of our lives have been turned upside down and it’s likely that many are still struggling to find a balance.

It shouldn’t come as such a shock then to find that young lawyers and law students are now considered to be “at risk” for substance abuse and mental health problems when compared to the general population. A recent ABA survey of nearly 13,000 lawyers and judges in the United State provides compelling evidence that mental health and drinking problems were higher than indicated by previous studies with young lawyers most at risk.

The new stresses of law school including deadline worries, lack of sleep, and social alienation can all lead to heightened levels of anxiety and depression. These chronic stresses can open the door to substance abuse, which could further trigger a latent addiction problem. Coupled with the surplus of opportunities students have to drink and to do so heavily at school-sponsored networking and social events, it’s not difficult to see how and why these rates could continue to rise.

The question then becomes what can we do to try to combat this troubling realization starting in law school? Commentators have identified some possible remedies (see here and here):

  1. Require law schools to have mandatory programs on wellbeing that would compel students to attend classes on self-care that would include coverage of substance abuse and mental health and provide strategies for improving personal welfare. These classes could also focus on the nexus between impaired lawyers and ethical violations and potential sanctions. Whether these mandatory classes would be a good idea or not is yet to be seen. It is possible that students not facing these issues at the time would find it pointless while those already struggling but not yet ready to face their realities would find the classes upsetting, only further alienating them from the help we wish them to have.
  1. Encourage students not to hide their problems. In this respect, law schools should consider strengthening their relationships with local Lawyer Assistance Programs in order to help promote ways students can better strike the school-life balance. Relatedly, the culture in which a student “all nighter” is treated as a badge of honor fundamentally needs to change.
  1. Review school-sponsored social events. Since the beginning of the Spring semester, at least five student events at my school have encourage alcohol consumption with “$5 all you can drink wristbands.” While it is not necessary for law schools to ban drinking entirely, the purpose and benefit of the event itself should be the central focus and the alcohol available deemphasized. Schools should also continue to diversify social events to include more relaxing daytime events and additional events that promote wellness.

Regardless of the approach law schools choose to adopt, there is no denying that law students’ stress levels are at an all time high.  Students are concerned about grades. Students are concerned about their futures. Furthermore, this negative emotion can lead to fear, anger, increased mental instability, and a surge of substance abuse problems. Ultimately, the key is for both faculty and students to become more familiar with the warning signs of distress and to ensure students are aware of the confidential health resources available to them.

If you or someone you know may be in need of mental health or substance abuse help please contact your local Lawyers’ Assistance Program or campus counseling service.  If you are at Chicago-Kent two great resources are the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program and IIT’s Student Health and Wellness Center.

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