Law school is often exponentially more stressful than undergraduate studies. Typically, law students report high levels of stress and anxiety even when compared to other graduate students. This stress, in turn, leads to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders among first-year law students.
At the same time, law students feel pressure to put health and well-being low on their list of priorities; who has time to sleep, go to therapy, take a break to see friends and family, or exercise when exams are just ahead? And while today's law students have a far greater understanding of mental health than previous generations, law students still report that they're afraid to admit their own struggles even in confidential settings.
Law School Is the Right Time to Cultivate a Balanced Lifestyle
Mental health issues can quickly become significant problems that continue into your career as a legal professional. That is why it is important to learn how to manage stress, fatigue, and other difficulties while still in law school. For example, up to 40% of law students report problems managing depression, and many report abusing alcohol and anti-anxiety medication to handle stress. These habits can lead to further troubles down the road.
It is true that some mental health issues are transient. Depression and anxiety can get better gradually over time. However, even if your depression, anxiety, or substance use is not “serious," you can benefit from treatment or activities that improve mental health. Preventative measures are often the best way to stay healthy. For anyone in doubt, FindLaw has self-assessments you can download that may provide an idea of how severe your mental health challenges are.
Now is as good a time as any to get started leading a healthy, balanced lifestyle. As much as learning the law and how to practice, knowing how to stay healthy and happy is essential to being successful and avoiding burnout when you do start practicing.
Developing Good Mental Health Habits
There are many ways to improve mental health. These include reducing harmful behavior such as substance abuse and developing healthy habits like regular exercise and mindfulness. Be aware of and work on your physical, social, mental, and spiritual life. Yoga, time with friends, or other healthy activities not related to law school are essential.
In addition to developing your own healthy habits and coping mechanisms, confidential help is available. Every state has a lawyer assistance group that is available to law students. This is a free, confidential resource that can give you the opportunity to speak to someone who understands your situation. The American Bar Association (ABA), in cooperation with state lawyers' assistance programs, has also developed a toolkit for law students looking for more mental health resources.
Overcoming Stigma and Lack of Resources
Your law school may have resources in place to help students manage stress in healthy ways. Unfortunately, many law schools still do not devote adequate attention to student mental health. In some law schools, students themselves have taken the lead and created student-run wellness and support groups. But many students find it difficult to admit that they need help.
It is important to know that you are not alone. Law school is stressful, but overwhelming anxiety and depression are not necessary to succeed in school or a legal career. Despite its reputation, law school is not an endurance test of how much misery you can stomach. Admitting that you need to devote some time to your health is not a sign of weakness.
A Note on the Character and Fitness Requirement
A little uncertainty in reaching out for mental health resources is understandable. For most law students, getting a law degree is just the beginning. The whole idea is to do well enough to pass the bar exam, become licensed, and start practicing law. Unfortunately, the character and fitness portion of the application to some state bars can sometimes deter law students from seeking help.
The good news is that many states have revisited this requirement. Currently, 14 states do not ask about the mental health status of law students in their applications at all. Others only ask about it in relation to administrative legal matters or court-appointed conservatorship.
If left untreated, your mental health can deteriorate. Sometimes, there's a need for help from a mental health professional. And even in states that do ask about mental health, going to therapy to develop healthy coping skills and stress management techniques doesn't prohibit you from practicing law.
In the end,there's nothing more important than your own well-being.
Finally, please note that even if you have had past issues with depression, substance use, or any other mental health condition, that does not prohibit you from practicing law. Taking your health and self-care seriously in law school is a positive sign.
Take Mental Health Seriously
Agreeing in theory that mental health is important and finding the time, comfort, and energy to act in ways that improve mental health are two different things. Take the time to be aware of what you need, mentally and physically, and do what's necessary to manage the inevitable stress that comes with obtaining a legal education. It is possible to be healthy, happy, and successful as a lawyer. You can start now.