by Lora Johns
March is dreary, gray, and cold. The vivid reds of autumn leaves and apples faded so long ago they might never have been at all. The promise of springtime sun and flowers feels more like a lie—in the freezing drizzle of a March morning, it’s easy to believe there will never be another May. There will only be this—the cold, the gray, the gloom—forever.
Maybe that’s why the ABA decided that Mental Health Awareness Day should be in March. It’s when people who aren’t depressed can best relate to people who are.
For decades, it has been an open secret that law students struggle with their mental health. It is less well-known that 1Ls look about the same as the average population on day one of law school, but almost half graduate with depression. During the three years in between, their emotional distress exceeds that of medical students and approaches the level of psychiatric populations.
It doesn’t stop in law school. For many attorneys, law practice and heavy drinking go hand and hand. In many places, it’s a bit of an office joke. I have known lawyers whose offices boast an entire shelf filled up with whiskey bottles. But lawyers contemplate suicide more often than people in almost any other profession. A major Johns Hopkins study found that out of 104 professions, lawyers were the most depressed. Rather than seek proper treatment, many of them self-medicate with drugs and alcohol—even to the point of dying from it.
Those whiskey bottles seem less funny now.
When I was a law student, the topic seemed taboo. One or two other women in my class admitted to me, in hushed tones and with darting eyes, that they were seeing a therapist. The word was whispered, lest the bar examiners hear it and deny our character and fitness applications. The fierce competition from one’s cohorts and vigorous oversight from the state created a cloying environment of fear and panic. Is it any wonder that so many law students who suffer mental health problems are afraid to seek help? We barely talked about it with each other.
(An aside: I don’t mean to imply that the entire law school experience is like this. I loved my time at law school, and so did many of my classmates. But those among us who struggled with their mental health expressed feeling paralyzed and unheard, perceiving themselves as unable to seek help without compromising their academics or their careers.)
In December 2014, seven months after I graduated from Yale Law School, its Mental Health Alliance published a report on the struggles of Yale Law students. Most students filled out the survey. Seventy percent said they suffered from mental illness. That’s almost every three students out of four. Only half of them ever sought help. They did not trust their doctors and therapists not to rat them out to the bar, or they were afraid of what their peers would think, or the resources available were too hard to access.
This does not just affect Yale. No matter the school, certain aspects of legal education itself are particularly damaging to mental health. Heavy workloads, vicious competition, and hierarchical measures of worth contribute to stress. The emphasis on linear thinking, suppression of emotional reactions in the name of objectivity, and a shift from intrinsic motivations (helping people) to extrinsic ones (making law review) cause students to lose touch with their personal values and sense of self.
Librarians can’t singlehandedly cure legal academia of this ailment, but I am proud of the efforts the law librarians at Yale have made to counteract the harmful aspects of law school culture. Every March, we provide creative outlets for students—things like coloring books, Legos, and puzzles—at conspicuous “wellness stations” in the library. “I don’t have time for that,” scoffed one student last year, his friends smirking as I set up a station for building a model of the Eiffel Tower with Lego blocks. When I returned twenty minutes later, they were absorbed in it, their posture relaxed, their hands busy, their faces smiling. It might seem trivial for the library to provide such things, but that may have been the only time all week those students thought about anything other than work.
Several of our librarians also run a popular short story contest every year. The submissions reveal a law student population with so much individuality, creativity, and vibrancy that it would be nothing short of criminal to bury it under the Socratic method and leave it to wither.
These efforts help law students to stay in touch with the creative part of themselves—the part it is so easy to neglect for three long years. I believe it helps them to hold onto their own voice.
Helping students remember that there is more to life than scoring a clerkship or making six figures as a high-powered associate—that there has to be more to life than that—is something we can do. We can make mental-health enhancing activities conspicuous. We can normalize the radical idea of taking time to play and relax. In an environment that rewards stoic workaholism, we can provide a safe place for them to simply be human. And if they feel safe enough to be human, maybe they will feel emboldened to take a pamphlet from the reference desk describing campus mental health services and lawyer assistance programs.
This is a controversial and uncomfortable topic. Mental health taboos are all too real, especially in the legal world. But we cannot stand silently by as depressed law students graduate into even more depressed lawyers and live out ultimately unhappy—and sometimes tragically foreshortened—lives.
This March, I challenge you, my colleagues, to think about what life rafts you can throw to the students who may be silently drowning around you. Maybe it takes the form of a weekly meditation session. Maybe it’s a guide to character and fitness emphasizing how the law protects medical information—like what you tell a psychiatrist. Maybe it’s inviting a therapy dog (or llama) to the library.
The most fundamental help you can give, though, is empathy and understanding. Students are used to being vulnerable (at least academically) around librarians. Find a way to let them know it’s okay to be vulnerable emotionally, too. Winter is long, but if you plant the bulbs, May flowers will—eventually—bloom.