Making Law Student Mental Health a Priority

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Initiatives at Penn Law affirm a commitment to making well-being a priority in its community and the legal profession.

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Mental health and substance abuse problems affect individuals working in every profession. Unfortunately, too many professionals suffer in silence, while others fail to notice their own conditions and needs. Institutions dedicated to preparing individuals to enter professional careers need to take the lead in addressing this problem—a mission that Penn Law has taken to heart through several recent initiatives.

Studies show that law students and lawyers suffer mental health-related conditions at much higher rates than the general population. The data further reveal that law students suffer from alcohol and drug abuse, anxiety, and depression at worrying rates.

With the help of students and staff, the Penn Law administration recently put forward policies and programs seeking to increase awareness of the well-being problem that has affected the legal profession. The administration has also provided concrete mental health guidance and education to members of the law school’s student body.

For law students today, a basic awareness of the importance of well-being and the extent of mental health issues in the legal profession is too critical to be optional. Under an American Bar Association (ABA) rule, all law students must already take a professional responsibility course before graduation—so Penn Law has integrated a well-being module into every one of its professional responsibility courses to affirm its commitment to mental health education.

Penn Law’s professional responsibility well-being module is the first of its kind in the United States. It seeks to raise students’ understanding of the mental health problems affecting the legal profession, and it aims to equip law students with the tools necessary to promote well-being behaviors when they go out into the world of practice.

A recent report published by the ABA informed the design of Penn Law’s well-being module. Penn Law agrees with the ABA that “to be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer,” and that “our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being.”

The ABA report challenges institutions to take concrete steps to enhance well-being in law schools and the legal profession at large. Informed by substantial research that suggests “that law students are among the most dissatisfied, demoralized, and depressed of any graduate student population,” several recommendations direct law schools to identify academic practices that may play a role in student unwellness and implement initiatives that aim to eliminate them.

Penn Law has used these recommendations to form the blueprint for its well-being module. The law school also continues to look to the ABA’s recommendations for guidance on how to increase awareness of and support for mental health concerns.

The Penn Law administration has also put into place another mental health initiative—the “Mental Health and Wellness Fund”—which empowers students to design and implement programs that seek to promote mental health and well-being across our campus.

Research shows “that environments that facilitate control and autonomy contribute to optimal functioning and well-being.” By promoting the formation of student-led programs that enhance well-being at the law school, the Penn Law community has sought to encourage students to take ownership of their mental health and wellness.

In addition, by working with Penn Law’s student government, the school has formed and taken input from a Wellness Committee that offers administrators real-time feedback on student concerns. It has also built out a dedicated space for students to use for mental health support.

Faculty and institutional leaders have also supported workshops and speakers on mental health, such as our Center on Professionalism’s “Mind Your Mind” workshops as well as major lectures by Professor Elyn Saks and Dr. David Nutt.

At Penn Law, we believe that our well-being module, student-led initiatives, and the other measures constitute important steps in the right direction. We also believe that effective education and action on mental health and well-being in the legal profession require all law schools to address two related misconceptions.

The first involves the stigma commonly associated with mental health and substance abuse problems, particularly in an educational setting that prizes expertise and in a profession that frowns on open acknowledgment of weakness. For law students, stigma can be perceived as presenting a sharper edge, as many students may worry that seeking help to address mental health problems could compromise their ability to get a job or to meet state bar fitness requirements.

Law schools must do more to assuage students’ concerns. Penn Law is working with leading law firms and state bar officials to support steps that will send the message to students and lawyers alike that addressing one’s mental health enhances, rather than detracts, from a new attorney’s potential for success.

Second, law schools must do more to educate all students, even those who experience less difficulty in law school. Research suggests that the first decade of practice after law school presents the highest likelihood for substance abuse and other mental health issues. Maintenance and mindfulness about one’s mental health are important for every attorney and law student, including those relatively healthy at the moment.

In the classroom, law schools should seek to integrate mental health education within their curricula. Following the recommendations put forth by the ABA, Penn Law has implemented the insight that professional ethics courses provide great venues for doing so. Attorneys’ attention to their own and their colleagues’ mental health is itself a necessary measure of professional responsibility.

Without access to mental health resources—and without deliberate institutional attempts at fostering well-being in legal academic settings—students may feel ill-equipped to tackle the problems from which they may suffer. This reality should make law schools accountable for the improvement of student well-being. It should also serve as a guidepost for policy-making that seeks to address mental health issues affecting the entire legal profession.

Benjamin A. Barsky

Benjamin A. Barsky is an editor of The Regulatory Review and a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Theodore W. Ruger

Theodore W. Ruger is dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

This essay is part of a 12-part series, entitled What Tomorrow Holds for U.S. Health Care.