Rainy Day Law Students, Psychological Distress in Law Students, Part I

And on the serious side …

Rainy Day Law Students

Rainy Day Law Students

On my way to class recently, I came across this hand-written annotation posted alongside this rainy day painting hanging in our magnificent law school (recently ranked as the nation’s best law school facility).

Click to enlarge the picture and you’ll see it’s a man standing under a raining umbrella.  The sign says: “Every day in law school

As law students everywhere approach fall semester exams, it once again brought home the sad fact that many law students struggle with anxiety, depression and other psychological dysfunction.

I learned the depth of the problem researching 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (West 2d ed., 2013). Here are some of the studies I came across:

  • 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.

Law students: Be self-aware. Students are sometimes the last to know, or admit, that they are struggling. I once had a first-year student rush out of class thinking she was having a heart attack. I ran after her and found her sitting on a bench clutching her chest. Her face was flushed and she was sweating and trembling. But it wasn’t a heart attack. It was a panic attack.

Stay on the lookout for anxiety or depressed states that are excessive and prolonged and are impairing your ability to function. If you’re struggling, know you are not alone. Many students suffer silently, hiding their distress even from close loved ones. I felt that way as a student. It’s okay to feel bad.  Take advantage of the university counseling center.  Free and confidential, your fees pay for it.

Part II of this post will offer more insights, but if you have access to a copy of 1L of a Ride, read Chapters 19 (The Bleak Side of Law School) and 20 (Maintaining Well-Being). Also study Chapter 15 (Exam Preparation) for strategies on approaching exams in an organized, reduced-stress way.  In the meantime, remember: this too shall pass.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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