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Wellness at the the Law School: Promises to Keep and Miles to Go Before We Sleep

By Amanda H. Chan, Amanda M. Lee, and Adam P. Savitt

Every law student has met a lawyer who cannot help but offer the advice, “Don’t go to law school.” The misery in the legal profession is seemingly ubiquitous. The mental health crisis facing modern lawyers has been reported so extensively, it barely needs repetition. Yet the causes have been woefully overlooked.

Why hasn’t Harvard taken responsibility for its contribution to this professional malaise? Last year, we pushed Harvard Law School to begin an annual mental health survey to measure the welfare of the student body. We began writing law school-specific survey questions based on our experience as students and worked with university health researchers and administrators to publicize the survey.

The results presented a grisly reality. Among 886 respondents, 25 percent reported suffering from depression. For context, according to the CDC, 7.7 percent of individuals aged 20 to 39 from the general population suffer from depression. 24.2 percent of Law School survey respondents reported suffering from anxiety, and 20.5 percent said they were at heightened risk of suicide. 66 percent of respondents said that they experienced new mental health challenges during law school. Nearly 61.8 percent said they had frequent or intense imposter syndrome experiences at school and in measuring social connectedness, 8.2 percent stated they had zero people they could open up to about their most private feelings without having to hold back.

But the problem is not confined to the Law School. In 2014, researchers Jerome Organ, David Jaffe, and Katherine Bender built on the work of Lawrence Krieger, Ken Sheldon and more, to revitalize the discussion of law student mental health. They surveyed students from 15 ABA-approved law schools and found high incidence of drug use, depression, anxiety, and suicide risk. Additionally, Law students at Yale and Georgetown surveyed their peers, and students at other schools have also demanded action. Evidence of pervasive suffering calls for decisive action now.

We therefore call on all law schools to survey their own student bodies every year and release the survey data. The court of public opinion should hold them accountable.

Studies that anonymize school participants allow schools to shirk individual responsibility. Only institution-specific surveys done year to year can measure whether policy changes at each school were effective. Harvard Law School is the only law school that has taken the first step towards change with an in-depth, initial survey and other schools should do at least the same.

Because an annual barometer of student wellbeing is only useful if coupled with new policies, we also advocate for Harvard to take these next steps:

First, release a full and anonymized report of the data. A large-scale community mobilization was critical to discover the truth about the Law School’s mental health status and it was built on the promise to combat the crisis together. To achieve this goal, students were willing to put in the time to answer invasive questions about their mental health struggles, including potential struggles with suicide ideation, alcohol consumption, and more. Students deserve to have ownership of the data that they themselves created; as sophisticated and sensitive allies, students also understand that data must be handled responsibly, that patterns may not have statistical significance, that correlation is not causation, and that results should be contextualized. But if the data is kept behind administrative doors, it will be impossible for students to offer perspective to improve the way data is analyzed and it will be clear that students are not respected as equal stakeholders in a crisis that affects them; naturally, it would then be difficult to galvanize students behind a future survey. A full community effort can only be created with full transparency.

Second, hire more full-time therapists who are diverse in both personal background and professional specialty. Only 33 percent of student respondents that were found to be depressed were being treated. Harvard should also provide weekly, appointment-free drop-in counseling sessions. However, any increase in access to care to new students must not be at the expense of ongoing or specialized treatment to students already seeking care. The general increase in providers is an ask especially of our leadership, University President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow, to increase Health Services’ capacity at all levels.

Third, train students how to informally counsel and detect signs of distress in individuals who may be facing mental health challenges. These trainings can develop lawyering skills when applied to client service and facilitate earlier peer or self-intervention for students struggling with mental health. It is evident that most of our classmates suffer in isolation; a majority of student respondents indicated that they believed less than half of their peers faced mental health challenges, though 83 percent of respondents reported having such challenges.

Fourth, foster deeper connections between faculty and students. This could include more candid discussions about mental health struggles in the legal profession, or even the struggles of the faculty themselves. Our survey shows that students with more connections to faculty members display lower rates of depression and anxiety. But, as it stands, only 8 percent of students said they would feel comfortable reaching out to faculty about mental health challenges. Our educators should be open to combining traditional legal teaching tools with new pedagogy that cultivates conversation and de-stigmatizes mental health.

Fifth, as a leading law school that produces one of the largest graduating classes, Harvard should pressure state bar associations to eliminate questions that do not assess a candidate’s competency to practice law. Licensing bodies require candidates to answer probing character and fitness questions as a prerequisite to practicing law; some have even discriminated against students based on treatment or diagnosis in violation of the ADA. Basing assessments of competency on a candidate’s medical record—which may include the diagnosis of mental health conditions—rather than a candidate’s actual conduct stigmatizes mental illness and actually deters students from seeking counseling for fear they will eventually need to report. Indeed, our survey found that 19 percent of respondents were reluctant to seek help due to concerns about bar eligibility. This reluctance was correlated with heightened depression, anxiety, and risk of suicide.

In the face of this mental health crisis, law schools must reverse the trend of increased mental health challenges. By committing to our asks, Harvard should engage in this cooperative effort to investigate root causes of mental health challenges, test new interventions, and begin to inaugurate practicing lawyers that finally say to future law students, “definitely go to law school.” Or at least, “maybe go.”

Amanda M. Lee is the President of Harvard Law School Student Government. Amanda H. Chan is the Vice President of Harvard Law School Student Government. Adam P. Savitt is Chair of Health and Wellness of Harvard Law School Student Government. The authors are all third-year students at the Law School.

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