1Ls, Prioritize Mental Health

Congratulations on your acceptance to Harvard, and best of luck as you embark on the new exciting chapter of your life. Whether it was Atticus Finch or Elle Woods who inspired you to pursue a career in law, you have successfully achieved high academic scores and made your families proud. While you bask in this hard-earned euphoric glow and prepare for the first week of classes, it is equally important to focus on maintaining your well-being, and to develop an awareness and action plan to promote your mental health throughout the next stages of your career.

As incoming law students, studies have shown that initially mental health among this population is comparable to the national average.1 Yet this coming year will present many life-defining challenges: you will encounter struggles of professional identity,2 stress of acceptance into summer internships, and stauncher competition than you have previously experienced. Perhaps you will also grapple with ethical ambiguity which battles your principles in an arena lacking moral absolutes.

The addendum to studies which demonstrate average rates of well-being among incoming law student health highlights the changes that students face over the course of that first year. Law student bodies rank as the most depressed among all graduate students.3 43% percentage of law students responded affirmatively to binge drinking at least once in the past two weeks.4 After law school graduation, lawyers may feel stress of becoming the “Renaissance Attorney,”5 with a plethora of legal expertise spanning multiple specialties.

Mental health has become a focus on a national scale with the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act in December of 2016. Included in the Act is the Helping Families In Mental Health Crisis Act, which is one of the most impactful mental health laws passed in years.6 Among the provisions in this Act is a necessity to “issue guidance to improve the compliance of group health plans and health insurance coverage with requirements for parity between mental health and substance use disorder benefits and medical and surgical benefits….”7

As the opioid epidemic spreads to the point of nighttime host John Oliver delivering public awareness monologues of the widespread devastation, it is important to recognize that substance abuse is not just a trend affecting those using heroin. A New York Times article highlights the death of a lawyer who quietly battled substance abuse, and shines light on the shock of his ex-wife as she retroactively chronicles his downward spiral. As she reflects in horror, “Of all the heartbreaking details of his story, the one that continues to haunt me is this: The history on his cellphone shows the last call he ever made was for work. Peter, vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness, had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call.”8

One of the most critical attempts to combat unhealthy practices adopted in the legal profession is the “National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being: Creating a Movement To Improve Well-Being in the Legal Profession” which the American Bar Association recently released. As the report alarmingly notes:

To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being…. Too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use. These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence. This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.9

The report goes on to outline recommendations for various sectors within the law profession to adopt to support mental health within the legal industry. These recommendations include promoting civility, modifying the bar admissions process to focus on behavior rather than mental health treatment, and decreasing the presence of alcohol at professional events, among others.10

On an industry standard, a 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine shed light on alarming statistics of levels of “problem drinkers” which, at 18%, is nearly double the rate of 10% among American adults. 20.6% of lawyers who participated in the study were identified as “screening positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.”11 A Yale Law School study reported 70% of respondents experienced mental health challenges during law school.12 In February, the ABA issued a Model Rule to include one Substance Abuse and Mental Health Credit Hour requirement every three years.13

With these sobering statistics in mind, what makes lawyers happy? An article with this title revealed that “external factors” such as compensation packages and partnership only minimally contributed to lawyer happiness, if at all, while “internal and psychological factors shown in previous research to erode in law school” demonstrated the strongest correlation. Lawyers at distinguished firms were not as happy as their public service counterparts, nor were junior partners in comparison to senior associates.14

This unhappiness that is contributing to practices that are detrimental to mental health have staggering repercussions. In addition to harming a lawyer and one’s family, legal incompetence affects clients’ lives, corporate performance, and the formation of national laws.

As you wade into the waters of the legal profession, here are positive steps you can take to help you swim through strong currents. It is also encouraged to maintain a buddy system to check on each other as waters get rough.

The “Substance Abuse and Mental Health Toolkit for Law Students and Those Who Care About Them” issued by the ABA Law Student Division, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), and the Dave Nee Foundation advocates maintaining a balanced lifestyle. This includes incorporating habits into daily life which promote mental, spiritual, physical, and social health. Among other suggestions, they encourage revisiting hobbies, and recommend books on positive thinking to readjust negative ideology and promote mindfulness.15

Harvard also offers a plethora of resources to nurture student well-being. These services can be accessed through the Harvard Law School website,16 and include links to outside resources such as Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, which hosts support group meetings, and LawLifeline, which addresses frequent stressors for students in law school. For those looking to proactively build in activities to reduce stress levels, the website also lists upcoming events such as yoga and chair massage study breaks.

As you explore campus and learn about the services Harvard Law School has to offer, take some time to benefit yourself, your families, and your future colleagues and associated institutions by carving in time to discover venues and activities which can support your well-being and mental health during the next three formative years.

This article is dedicated in memory of Mona Daniella Haddad, a brilliant young writer whose kindness shone light on countless lives. 

Ariella Michal Medows works in health and educational consulting.

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