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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Addressing Psychological Distress with Your Students

The following post is from Andrew McClurg (Memphis) and is sponsored by West Academic.

My students appear to be happy and content.  When I arrive at class, they’re chattering and laughing.  Same thing when I see them in the halls or student lounge.  On Facebook, they show that, despite the workload, law students find plenty of time to socialize.

But a less cheerful picture lurks beneath the surface, as I learned researching 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (West Academic Publishing, 2d ed., 2013). A surprisingly large body of research shows that many law students suffer from psychological dysfunction, including depression and anxiety.  Here are some of the findings:

• As far back as 1957, a study found that psychological distress in law students significantly out-paces not only the general population, but other graduate student populations, including medical students.  (Eron & Redmount, 1957).

• A 1980s study of law and medical students at the University of Arizona found that law students scored significantly higher than both the general population and medical students in nearly every category of psychological dysfunction, including anxiety, depression, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, hostility, and obsessive-compulsiveness.  (Shanfield & Benjamin, 1985).

• With regard to the chicken and egg question of whether law school causes psychological distress or attracts people who are already inclined toward it, one study found that law students begin school with psychopathological symptoms similar to the general population, but that those symptoms become substantially elevated during law school.  The same study found that 17-40 percent of the participating law students suffered from depression. (Benjamin, Kaszniak, Sales & Shanfield, 1986).  Comparatively, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 9 percent of the U.S. adult population show symptoms of depression, including 4.1 percent who suffer major depression.

• In another study, researchers administered a battery of tests to entering law students to measure their states of happiness, life satisfaction, physical symptoms, and depression.  The scores showed that the students were a mostly contented, normal group on arrival.  By the end of the first year, however, they showed large reductions in positive affect, life satisfaction, and overall well-being, and large increases in negative affect, depression, and physical symptoms.  (Sheldon & Krieger, 2004).

• A 2000 study of University of Michigan law students found that half of the students showed symptoms of clinical depression by the end of their first year, and that these high levels remained throughout their law school careers.  Comparing the law students’ scores on a standard depression scale to scores for other groups subject to extreme stress yielded startling results.  The 50 percent depression rate for law students compared to rates of 40-45 percent for unemployed people, 50 percent for people experiencing the death of a spouse or marital separation in the past year, and 50-60 percent for persons being treated for substance abuse.  (Reifman, McIntosh & Ellsworth, 2000).  This isn’t to suggest, of course, that being a law student is as bad as those events, but law school can push the brain’s depression buttons.

To the extent law school is responsible for causing emotional distress in law students, one doesn’t have to look far for plausible explanations, including the make-it-or-break-it single-exam format, heavy emphasis on grades and class rank, lack of feedback, competitive environment, high student-teacher ratios, Socratic method, and intense workload.  Added to these traditional woes are modern worries about heavy debt-load and finding a job.  Intangibly, the adversarial nature of the legal system in which law students are immersed, the emphasis on objective analytical thinking over personal values and emotions, and strains on personal relationships can all add to psychological dissonance.

My research persuaded me to start checking up on my own students.  Mid-semester, I asked my 1Ls to list their three top emotions about law school and then dumped their answers into a Word Cloud program, which depicts entries by size according to how often the words are repeated.  The results, as you can see from the picture, are not a pretty sight.

1L Word Cloud

I also asked them to play Ernest Hemingway.  You may have heard the legend that Hemingway once made a bet that he could write a complete story in six-words, and proceeded to write on a napkin, “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”  I assigned, as some other professors have done, my 1Ls to write a six-word story about law school.  The majority of their stories reflected stress and anxiety.  Here are some samples:

    • I came.  I studied.  I suffered.

    • Orientation.  Confusion.  Overwhelmed.  Anxious.  Exhausted.  Graduation.

    • Accepted application.  Law school.  Emotional wreck.

    • Started school.  Constant briefing.  Now crying.

    • Socrates meets Bentham under Sisyphus’ boulder.

I make it a point to talk to my first-year students about the issues.  I tell them about the psychological distress studies. I distribute a list of depression symptoms.  I give them the phone number of the university counseling center and encourage them to make an appointment if they’re struggling (word has it that law students are the biggest consumers of the service within our university). 

I tell students to not accept depression or severe anxiety as normal consequences of law school and assure them there is no shame in suffering these conditions, offering the confession that I too have suffered from depression and anxiety.  Each time, some students contact me afterwards to say thanks and share their own experiences.  In many cases, they take me up on my advice to seek help. 

Amidst all the cases and rules, take a few minutes to talk to your classes candidly about psychological distress in law students.  Simply acknowledging the issue can help them.  Students tend to think they’re the only ones struggling.  Many suffer silently, hiding their distress even from their close loved ones.  I felt that way as a student.  Hearing from their professors that they are not alone gives them a kind of permission that it’s okay to feel bad.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 15, 2015 at 09:31 AM in Sponsored Announcements | Permalink



Posted by: wtf | Jan 17, 2015 10:26:49 AM


Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jan 17, 2015 2:04:14 AM

I was also politely wondering the same thing.

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Jan 16, 2015 1:38:56 PM

I don't mean to be impolite, but what does it mean that a post is "sponsored by West Academic"?

Posted by: dave hoffman | Jan 15, 2015 11:33:48 AM

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