When discussing law student mental health, an understanding of how stigma impacts diverse/marginalized demographics is important. There can be a tendency to view stigma as a equals impact, cookie-cutter conversation. The reality is that it can have a radically different meaning and impact, depending on the unique aspects of a particular student.
All law schools should consider having a wellness diversity representative integrated into their specific program to ensure that students from different cultures and demographics. who may view mental health stigma in a way unique to their upbringing, have a voice and explore ways to ensure they do not feel marginalized in seeking help.
I reached out to two diverse students to provide their insight on how their culture and background affect their definition of stigma and how law schools can better address a diverse student body.
Karman Anwar is a student at the UNT-Dallas School of Law.
My father is a Muslim man from Pakistan and my mother was a white Southern Baptist woman from North Carolina. They divorced when I was young and I spent time between the two going to church and to the mosque. I don’t currently practice either religion, but consider myself to be an independently spiritual person.
To me, a law school’s responsibility is to guide you back to your community for assistance during difficult times. My mom’s side of my family and my wife’s family (also white, but not religious) are both dominated by women. In both families, talking about feelings, how they’re affecting you, and expressing your vulnerabilities is common, accepted, and encouraged. A law school’s approach of “the door to student services is always open, come ask us for help when you are struggling” would work for most of them because their families mirror that approach to mental health. So when the school is pushing “opening up” as their solution, they are certainly empowering at least some of their students, but significantly ignoring the students who aren’t comfortable being open in that manner; typically, men and immigrants.
I spent the majority of my time in my youth with my father and younger brother. I had the immigrant, male, and Muslim aspects all weighing on me to shove my feelings down and persevere. My dad expected perfection and “feeling bad” was never going to be an acceptable excuse, so you never even said it out loud. After all, he’d shown up here with a suitcase and a little cash and built a life in which he could provide me with anything I wanted; who was I to complain to him? Also, in Islam, you keep it—whatever “it” is—in the family. Dumping your vulnerabilities is for you to do while you’re praying 5 times a day; not to a stranger. Plus, as we all know, men are expected to suffer silently and carry on in spite of their struggles.
All of that to say, “we’re here for you, come see us” is not going to work for me; ever. I can’t imagine a scenario where I’m going to wake up feeling depressed and march into student services and tell them about it. When I am struggling, I seek the advice of those I trust the most—a close group of friends and family. Law school necessarily strains my relationship with those people, and think that’s the center of my struggles while I’ve been in school. I don’t spend time with them, I am forced to ignore them, I don’t have time to reciprocate their caring for me. It’s tough.
But, what I think law schools can do, is remind us not to abandon the community that we came from. It’s easy to spend all your time in the library. It’s easy to completely stop working out (like I have for the last two years). It’s easy to eat poorly, drink too much, and get beaten down by poor grades or poor performances. But, the institution who inflicted this struggle on us logically cannot also be the solution. They need to remind us to put down the books sometimes, go for a run, have dinner with your wife, go to church (or temple or mosque), go see a movie or play, etc. They need to remind us that our mental health is rooted in our fitting into our communities and that the farther removed we become as we wade into the depths of law school, the more we’re going to struggle. It’s shouldn’t be the school’s responsibility to fix the problem it created; they need to remind us to continue participating in our social lives to the extent necessary to keep us sane.
Angela Han is a healthcare lawyer and a plant-based personal trainer for lawyers
My biggest goal coming to the US from Korea for the first time to attend college was to “fit in.” The first step in doing that was to absorb everything that I saw about the American culture and ignore every part of myself that did not align with that. That meant that I joined all kinds of student associations that was not Korean. I did not want to fit into the Asian “stereotype,” whatever that meant, and I wanted to speak English as fluently as possible so at least I would sound like an American if I couldn’t look like one. I tried to get away from my identity as far away as possible.
Every time I failed at being someone I was not, I felt like I failed as a person. I was setting unreasonable standards for who I needed to be, and I was not happy when I was with the people I was trying to “fit in” with. I later realized deeply that was a mistake when the people who grew closest to me were the ones who embraced my Korean identity and truly wanted to be part of my world. I felt like I had wasted years trying to fit into a mold I was not cut out for. That felt like another failure.
As young people, we are often pressured to know exactly what success and failure look like. Yet, we only have a very vague image of and little guidance on what either of that is. My idea of success was to go to a good school, get good grades, and get along with everybody because I was told that was a good thing. I never once considered during my undergraduate years what success meant for me personally. I was trying to get along with everybody, and when that did not happen, I felt like I had failed. And even when I had gone to a good school and got good grades, I still felt a gaping hole in my heart. That also felt like a failure because what I felt did not feel like a success. I wish I had known what success was for me because everything I accomplished felt less like success and more like a failure. Not knowing what success was for me, I did not know how to get back up.
What I think would have been helpful in school is if I saw more people like me who struggled in a similar way and have a safe space to talk about how to find answers together. One thing I remember from the posters that advertise for psych services at the schools I attended is that I did not find a lot of people who looked like me, and even if I did, the messaging a bit vague: “If you are stressed, we can help.” Also, because of my negative experience with a psych clinic, I was never sure when they were available, and I did not want to approach until I knew. I respect that the clinics are advertising to a broad audience, but like any business trying to attract the right people it can serve, it should be focused on specific problems to solve, like the one I had: ignoring my identity and not knowing what success meant for me because of the difference in culture. As part of addressing the diversity of problems that students may be struggling with, I think there are three practical ways to be more inclusive:
List out the exact issues they are looking to address. Not just “stress,” but specific and common issues like “dealing with stigma that comes with bad grades,” “managing time effectively with the overwhelm of reading and not understanding the materials,” “making meaningful connections in a competitive atmosphere,” “trying to immerse in a new culture if you are foreign LLM student,” “defining success,” “identifying goals that are right for me.” Listing these out shows the audience that their issues are well-understood, which opens up their mind more about coming to seek help. While there may be a fear that having a certain list of issues would exclude other types of issues, that will only cause to explore more specific issues that students are going through. Therapy can be more effective when there is more empathy and understanding of the issues the client is facing.
On the clinic website or any outward-facing marketing material for psych clinics, show the faces of the therapists and what their specialization is in. As a bonus, share their stories and where they’ve been. I feel like I would have been more open to engaging in conversation with a counselor if I understood more about his or her values because of how personal our conversation could get. We are more likely to reach out to someone who has had similar experiences so that they can empathize. There is a lesson to be learned from marketing. If you are planning a wedding and had to choose between a photographer that shoots anything vs. a photographer who specializes in wedding photos, you are more likely to choose the one who focuses on weddings. Make the counselors’ objectives, intentions, and background clear to facilitate a more open conversation.
Show availability for each of the counselors. When you show up with your voice on a call or as yourself in person, you feel a certain exposure where you feel like people can see that you need help. There is a stigma to that, unfortunately. But if you can see on the clinic’s website what each of the therapist’s availability is, you can manage your request for help privately. It is also better to know exactly when to visit the clinic knowing you will get help, as opposed to walking in with uncertainty that you may actually not get the help that day or may have to wait hours before speaking with anyone.
Provide a safe space for individuals with similar struggles. While individual counselors can be helpful, finding common ground with more people builds a sense of community and support for one another. But this is a delicate area – a safe space has a high risk of falling apart if there is no leader who sets ground rules and maintains the safe atmosphere. It would have been helpful for me if I knew that there was someone to look up to and others like me who sought that guidance from an authority figure.
Issues that arise from cultural differences is only one of the many struggles that we each have. While I may have felt a more acute sense of difference from the crowd because I came from an entirely different country, we all arrive on campus with different experiences and a desire to belong. Sometimes that desire is not satisfied because of our differences. Clinics can address the diversity of not just cultures but also struggles we each face by being more curious about the problems we deal with and being more transparent about how they operate.