An Open Letter to the Class of 2021: On Mental Health

Welcome and congratulations, incoming 1Ls! We upperclassmen are excited to have you join us and begin contributing to the vibrant HLS community. As a rising 2L, I have 1L year fresh in my mind, and write on behalf of the Student Mental Health Association (SMHA) with five pieces of advice for you all at this commencement of your law school experience:

    1. If you feel overwhelmed, know that you are not alone. A 2016 study by the American Bar Association found that 17% of law students experience depression and 37% experience anxiety.  It is unfortunately common to feel overwhelmed at points during law school. You have to adjust to a new way of thinking and a new style of instruction. Many incoming students have been out of a classroom for years when they enter HLS. Some come with families, and all with relationships and obligations pulling in different directions. Whichever particular stressors affect you, remember that they are a product of your environment. Feeling stressed, sad, or confused is not an indication that you don’t belong here. It’s normal to have these feelings, and we hope to help students understand the ways that they can mitigate and manage them.
    2. Take care of your mind like you take care of your body. Without much thinking, most of us engage in a good deal of preventative care with regards to our bodies: we know to eat healthy, exercise, get an annual physical, etc. Less ingrained in us by society is the need to have the same approach to mental wellbeing. As mentioned above, HLS can be a stressful place. It’s best to take steps to look out for your mental health well in advance of a crisis. Consider meeting with a therapist early in the year to do a check-in. Prioritize times for rest and relaxation as you plan your week. Maintain healthy relationships. And remember that exercising and eating will do wonders for both mind and body.
    3. Indulge in the little things which make you happy. Law school shouldn’t be a time where you set aside all your personal pleasures and just hammer for three years. Law school is a lot of work, but many people find they can work more efficiently and more joyfully if they take sufficient time to rest and step away from their casebooks and outlines. Whether it’s cooking, watching Netflix, walking your dog, knitting, dancing, or triathlon training that rejuvenates you, set aside time to do it.
    4. Seek help when you need it. You made it to HLS because you are exceptionally bright and hard-working. This is in no way undermined by seeking out support when you have concerns about your mental well-being. To the contrary, knowing one’s limitations and having the strength to seek guidance when needed are crucial lawyering skills. You will be receiving information on accessing care from Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS), the Dean of Students (DOS), and your section BSAs. Even if you don’t need it now, please save the information in case you or a friend need care in the future.
    5. Look out for your classmates. People who are struggling with mental health tend to isolate themselves. If you notice a friend is withdrawn, has lost motivation to work or socialize, or is just not acting like himself, please check in and see if he is okay and has considered accessing care. If you are worried about a friend and don’t know what to do, you can meet with a CAMHS counselor or drop in to a “Let’s Talk” session to discuss the situation and get advice. If you or your friend is in crisis, call Harvard University Health Services urgent care, (617) 495-5711, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1 (800) 273-8255, or message 741741 to text with a Crisis Counselor.

We wish for every 1L a meaningful year of growth, and hope that everyone feels comfortable and able to take the steps they need to finish 1L happy and whole.

Viviana Hanley is a 2L. She is a member of the Advocacy Committee of the Student Mental Health Association.

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