Mental Health, Wellness and the Law
Psychology and the law naturally intersect because they both ask – and seek to answer – questions about the contents of other people’s minds.
The legal system makes determinations about whether or not someone is competent to stand trial, enter into a contract, or make out a will. Lawyers argue about defendants’ states of mind in criminal trials, while charges and sentencing hinge upon the claims they make about what people were thinking or intending when they acted a certain way. In some cases, society calls upon the law to determine when a person is unable to make decisions for themselves and when they can or should be committed to a hospital against their will.
But while it’s common to think about these sorts of connections between psychology and legal clients, people don’t often think about the mental health struggles of lawyers themselves as professionals
Getting a handle on a long-standing problem
Law school and the legal profession are famous for being stressful, competitive, high stakes endeavors that can easily take a toll on people. Whether you’re fighting back stage fright as you prepare to deliver an opening statement in a courtroom or studying long, complicated legal briefs as you prepare for a final exam in your first-year contract law course, the work of the law is physically and psychically demanding.
People who pursue a career in the law are usually strongly self-motivated and high-achieving, which means they hold themselves to very rigorous standards. Lawyers and legal students who are especially driven by the desire to make a difference, and serve a cause greater themselves, can be particularly prone to letting their own well-being slide in the pursuit of professional goals. The result? They can feel all the more crushed when things don’t work out as they were hoping.
There has long been a widespread belief in the field that attorneys experience mental health problems – and struggles with substance abuse in particular – at higher rates than most people. But for a long time there wasn’t a lot of hard, concrete information about the behavioral health climate within legal settings.
That’s changed in recent years, however, as a number of large national surveys in the 2010s shed light on endemic mental health and substance abuse problems amongst lawyers.
In 2016, a large-scale national survey of legal professionals found that 36.4% of respondents showed signs of problematic drinking habits. The same report showed that 45% of attorneys experience depression at some point during their careers.
Some of these problems can start to present themselves in law school. A 2021 study from the University of Louisville Law Review found that nearly 69% of students in law school reported that they needed help for mental or emotional problems over the last year – up significantly from 42% in 2014. The same study showed that nearly a third of students had been diagnosed with depression and 40% with anxiety at some point in their lives. Those figures are nearly double what they were in 2014.
The problem is further complicated by concerns about the stigma around seeking help. A 2016 study of students at a single midwestern law school found that 82% of respondents expressed concern that seeking help for mental health problems could have ramifications for their career. Likewise, in a report from The Journal of Legal Education, 63% of law students worried that getting help for a substance abuse problem could threaten their admission to the American Bar Association (ABA).
Confronting the issue
Fortunately, lawyers and law students are pushing back against the stigma. In 2016, the ABA formed the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, a group charged with finding new ways to address these problems. In 2017 they issued a comprehensive report and set of recommendations for changes that need to be made across the legal profession in order to re-prioritize the physical and mental well-being of legal professionals.
“To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer,” the committee wrote in their report. “To maintain public confidence in the profession… and to reduce the level of toxicity that has allowed mental health and substance use disorders to fester among our colleagues, we have to act now. Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members’ state of being, accompanied by courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.”
The ABA task force’s report outlines six different dimensions to promoting healthy change in the profession.
- Occupational – This includes personal satisfaction, growth, enrichment, and financial stability in one’s work and in one’s studies.
- Emotional – The task force encourages organizations to “recogniz[e] the importance of emotions and [of] developing the ability to identify and manage emotions to support mental health, achieve goals, and inform decision making.”
- Social – The report encourages lawyers and law students to develop “a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support network,” and it encourages lawyers to get involved in peer groups and their broader communities.
- Intellectual – Lawyers are encouraged to engage “in continuous learning and the pursuit of creative or intellectually challenging activities that foster ongoing development.”
- Physical – Members of the legal profession need to pay better attention to their physical health. They should “striv[e] for regular physical activity, proper diet and nutrition, sufficient sleep, and recovery.” They should minimize the use of addictive substances and make sure to seek help for physical health when needed.
- Spiritual – The report emphasizes the importance of “developing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of life.”
The report recommended that law schools and legal organizations should form committees to actively monitor and promote the well-being of their members. They should check for signs of work addiction and poor self-care and combat social isolation by fostering greater social connectivity both in and outside the office.
The legal profession takes action
In response to these recommendations, more and more law schools are finding new ways to prioritize student wellness. Universities have begun incorporating classes on mindfulness and wellness-related topics into their curriculum. There’s been a renewed emphasis on gathering resources for students – accessible both online and in person. Access to counseling, peer support, and community-building extracurricular activities can make a decisive difference for students who find themselves isolated or struggling with their workload. This is important for all college students – regardless of their course of study.
At the Stetson University College of Law, students and faculty understand that proper mental health is essential to student success. The university provides free, confidential mental health counseling and stress management services to any student who needs them. Student Success Managers work collaboratively with students on a non-clinical basis to help them navigate life in law school and manage their workload with the rest of their real life responsibilities.
In addition, the College of Law also hosts a Student Wellness Society, composed of current students who organize extra-curricular events that provide peer support to students who need a little time to relax and blow off some steam.
At Stetson, you can be confident that your needs for a happy and healthy life won’t fall by the wayside as you pursue your legal degree. Apply to Stetson University College of Law today.
Learn more on “Real Cases”
In episode 11 of our podcast “Real Cases,” we sit down with Student Wellness Society President Kayla Albritton, Vice President Christopher Manon, and former President Katie Johnson to discuss how they strike a balance between work, life, and self-care at Stetson. They discuss juggling work and family responsibilities, explore the challenges of attending law school while working full time, and explain why sometimes the key to staying healthy is just taking an hour to be creative.
Topics: Real Cases