Mental health stigma-inducing barriers must be removed for law students

Mental health stigma-inducing barriers must be removed for law students

By Bree Buchanan, JD, MSF
April 12, 2021


While many individuals have a less than positive impression of lawyers as a whole, the importance of our legal system and the rule of law are integral to a healthy and just society. Likewise, hale, hearty and high functioning lawyers are critical to achieving these ideals.

Unfortunately, the legal profession is facing a crisis of degraded mental health with sky high rates of depression, anxiety and substance use disorders among all lawyers, and the highest for those under 30 years of age.

These behavioral health problems begin, for many, during law school when students are first exposed to the chronic and crushing levels of stress and toxic competitiveness. In the best of times, maintaining one’s mental health through these three years is a challenge.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice reckoning and environmental disasters made this nearly impossible, as these events dealt a devastating blow to the sense of normalcy and relative safety experienced by law students, a group comprised mostly of young adults.

For law students, the compounded crises are exacerbated by upended routines for attending class, social isolation, concerns about inequities when taking bar examinations, supporting themselves, finding post-graduation employment and agonizing over soul-crushing tuition indebtedness. Expectations for future success are dampened by news of the profession’s pay cuts, furloughs and other personnel reductions.

Overall, the events of 2020 acted as an accelerant to the behavioral health problems experienced by the legal profession’s youngest members.

Considering these challenges, one would expect that everything possible is being done to encourage law students to seek appropriate mental health treatment soon after onset of their problems. Unfortunately, the bar admissions process – with its intrusive and overly broad inquiries into mental health history – creates a fundamental barrier to the help-seeking behavior the profession should be encouraging.

A recent survey of law students shows that of the 42 percent of respondents who felt they needed mental health assistance in the past year, only half sought treatment of any sort. As a result, these students onboarded into the legal profession as new lawyers without much needed therapeutic assistance.

Reasons for not getting help include fears that treatment and its mandated disclosure required for admission to the bar will pose a threat to finding a job, their academic status, or approval to become a member of the bar. Others maintain the overly defensive belief that “I can handle it myself.” These reasons echo a familiar refrain by others who delay or refuse therapy because of the social stigma still attached.

Since the Department of Justice’s 2014 investigation in Louisiana and the resulting consent decree that prohibited wide-ranging inquiries about any mental health diagnosis or treatment, a few states have either amended or removed their questions. Rather than ask about the applicant’s condition or status of having had a behavioral health disorder, they are focusing only on recent conduct that could affect the applicant’s ability to competently practice law.

Undoubtedly, students in these jurisdictions will experience less perceived pressure to “go underground” with their behavioral health concerns, thereby reducing the nearly 50 percent of students who believed they had a better chance of getting admitted to the bar if a mental health problem was hidden.

A focus on a healthy and fit bar contemplates fundamental change in the way the education and formation of young lawyers is conducted. Pathways must be cleared of stigma-inducing, bureaucratic measures for these students suffering from behavioral health disorders that – without intervention – tend to be progressive.

The overarching goal should be to shape a profession in which the humanity of all its members is honored and all have the opportunity to thrive.
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Bree Buchanan, JD, MSF, is the Board President of the Institute for Well-being in Law and Senior Advisor for Krill Strategies, a national consulting firm for major legal employers. Her email is: bree1964@att.net

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