Staying Well In Law School

The fall semester of law school is almost here!  It will be a stressful time for both incoming students and those returning who may be dealing with ongoing mental-health/substance-use issues as well as those who may not have these issues but want to maintain a healthy mental health outlook.

To get some perspective on these issues, I reached out to David Jaffe. David is the Associate Dean of Students at the American University Washington College of Law. David is also the co-author of the seminal study on law student mental health.

If a student comes to you and says, “I think I have a substance-use issue and I am afraid if I seek help I will have to drop out and will never make it back,” what do you tell him/her?

Given the incredible fortitude it takes for a student to take this step, and noting per our national survey that there is a far greater number of law students struggling with a substance use or mental health issue than those expressing a willingness to seek help, the first thing I do is acknowledge the student’s bravery for having come forward, and let him know that he is in a safe and confidential environment.

Students are first and foremost concerned that they may get kicked out of school or not be admitted to the bar, and we have to disarm them of these fears.  In almost every instance we are assessing the depth of the situation while looking for the most helpful way forward.  As such, often I follow up with a specific question: “Do you want to be a lawyer?”, which also can be interpreted as “is law school right for you right now.”  The immediacy (or delay) in the response drives the remainder of the conversation.

A student who “but-for” the issue facing him has his heart set on becoming a lawyer will answer almost immediately in the affirmative, while a student who hesitates typically is dealing with an unrelated issue likely exacerbating the immediate concern (i.e., the student applied to law school as a default option, bent to the will of his parents in applying to law school). For the latter student, a substantive conversation will yield if continuing with law school at the moment is in his best interest.

Assuming an affirmative response (“I want to be here, but this issue is getting in the way”), and the consequences of the use has not gotten too profound, my goal is to find help for the student without having to withdraw from school.  In some instances, even a 28-day inpatient stay can be employed without a withdrawal, though this involves careful coordination with and support of relevant faculty; a committed dean of students however will have good relationships here and should be able to facilitate a temporary absence.  In the event that a particular course is heavy on participation and too much class will be missed, the dean of students should be able to arrange for a withdrawal from the course without a complete withdrawal from the semester (in cases where the situation arises late in the semester, we might even make plans for the student to return to the course when it is next taught).  Even where/especially if the student needs to (or opts to) withdraw from one or more semesters, maintaining regular contact signals that someone cares and that avenues for return to law school have not been foreclosed: When working with a student who withdrew partway through a semester and then extended his leave by another, we met every couple of months off-campus just to talk, during which time I was able to reassure him that we were prepared to receive him back (and provide ongoing assistance, if necessary) when he was ready.  The student subsequently returned and graduated, with solid grades, and with employment.

In sum, a student who want to earn a law degree should not be prevented from doing so due to a substance use or mental health issue. If the student is committed to assistance and recovery, so too should be the law school.

What are the top three to five things you tell either an incoming or even a more advanced student who is looking to find a more solid recovery support structure in a high-stress environment?

Find someone to trust.  Left alone, law students will attempt to muddle through while challenged by their mental health and/or substance use issues and will ultimately find themselves in worse to critical shape because they were afraid to seek help.  The stigma and fear associated with getting assistance is real. What strikes me about so many of the conversations I have with students near or in crisis is how similar they are: “Every classmate I see is fine so I am the only one with a problem”; “I have accomplished everything I have set out to do so far in my life so I should be able to handle this on my own”; “No one — from my family to my friends — will understand or believe this is affecting me in this way.” The relief when I share that the student is by no means the first to have come to me with an issue is palpable, and almost always opens the door for a freer conversation about next steps.

A law school seeking to do right by its students should have at least a part-time counselor onsite who can provide ongoing assistance, as well as ample resources for particular situations affecting a student where specialized counseling may be necessary (such as for matters involving sexual assault, PTSD, etc.).  If budgetary challenges exist, access to the university’s resources should stand as a fill-in.  A school in this situation might also check if the state’s Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) can provide hours at the school.

Establishment of a student organization dedicated to students in recovery is ideal but can be a challenge at the law school level, as one or more students have to be comfortable with their own recovery before placing themselves out to others. At the Washington College of Law, we have explored this development, establishment of Friends of Bill meetings, and even use of a nearby church for support.  We also have tinkered with Thursday night gatherings that do not challenge the traditional “bar reviews” but that are intended to provide comfortable space for non-drinkers.  In each of these instances, the challenge is developing a circle of classmates, ideally to become friends, who can trust one another over the long haul that defines the law school process.

We hear so much about “wellness” as a way of dealing with stress. Very few would claim law school is not stressful. What types of things is American doing to help law students deal with stress and move away from a “drinking culture” that may encourage students to turn to alcohol as a way of dealing with their issues? What more can we do as a profession to help graduate lawyers with a balanced outlook on dealing with the pressures of legal practice?

In addition to the foregoing, we constantly strive for “wellness” activities that have an emphasis on health with the absence of alcohol.  For example, we host weekly mindfulness sessions and yoga sessions for free or at a minimum cost.  We work with the student government to support movie nights, and we continue to host semi-annual puppy days for our students to relax and interact, reminding them of the importance of capturing the moment for other times when they need it.  Finally, we are out and about as often as we can, checking in with students in the hallways and common areas to remind them that a friendly face is around the corner.

We also encourage to faculty to take at least two steps in their approach to students on these issues: First, we ask them to keep class attendance and share with us repeat absences, which is in almost every instance a sign of a student in or nearing crisis.  Second, we ask our faculty to take intentional moments from their class at relevant points of the year to “be real” with their students: let them know that law school is a challenge in different ways for everyone gathered; remind them that they had a life prior to law school and need to continue to nourish the positive aspects that they brought forward; and encourage them to seek assistance before a smaller problem becomes a large one.  As much as deans of students want to be on the front lines of proactive outreach to students, we have to rely on our faculty who see these students on a regular basis.