At long last, we have arrived at the third and final post of my “Coming Out Trilogy.”
As promised, I want to focus this post on the role my struggles with depression and anxiety have played and continue to play in my interactions with my students, both in and out of the classroom.
My prior posts have covered the bleak statistics regarding depression and suicide rates among lawyers (nearly four times more likely to be depressed and six times more likely to commit suicide than the general public). Further, I also mentioned that many of our students are suffering from depression (32% by second semester first year and 40% by graduation). Although I have not found any specific data to support it, my guess is that an equal or (more likely) higher percentage of our students are also suffering from significant levels of anxiety.
In short, a third or more of our students are struggling with mental illnesses that are exacerbated (or triggered or caused or whatever word you most prefer) by the significant stresses of law school (and the various issues surrounding it, including -- to be frank – the cost, debt loads, and job prospects).* According to the research, if a person suffers a single incident of clinical depression, he has a 50% chance of experiencing another even if he takes antidepressant medication. After 3 incidents, there is a 90% chance of recurrance.** [I, for example, had my first (undiagnosed) bout of clinical depression in college and my first bout of anxiety (diagnosed) my first year of law school.] So, there is a very good chance that the depressed law students of today will be the depressed lawyers of tomorrow.
Our students need help to better understand the challenges of the profession they are entering: the potential for dissatisfaction, disillusionment, mental illness (including depression, anxiety and substance abuse), burnout, and more. When I left practice and started teaching, I promised myself that I would be open and honest with my students about my struggles and about the realities of law practice.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the Law and there were many, many aspects of practicing law that I loved (and at which I excelled). There were also aspects that I did not love (and tried my best to tolerate, sometimes less than successfully). I know, without reservation or qualification, that being a lawyer can be a highly rewarding career: emotionally, intellectually, and financially. If I was not honest with my students about the challenges of being a lawyer, however, I would be doing them a disservice.
Further, in my view, knowledge is power. With knowledge of the challenges and some of their causes, I figure my students will be better equipped to meet and overcome them.
In raising these issues with my students my basic goals are as follows: (1) to help destroy – via openness, honesty, and shamelessness – the very real stigma associated with mental illness in general and depression and anxiety in particular; (2) to make sure my students know that if they are struggling with depression or anxiety, they are not alone (even if they feel that way) and that there is no reason in the world for these illnesses to hold them back in any way; (3) to offer myself as a resource for any among them that are struggling; (4) to educate them about the challenges of practicing law; (5) to get them thinking about why they are in law school and what they want their lives in the law to be like (or if they even want a life in the law); and (6) to get them thinking, critically and proactively, about the different career paths, options, settings, locales and such available to those with law degrees, all of which can have a significant impact on their personal well-being.
So, what do I do? I talk openly and honestly about my struggles and experiences and I do so in class (in first year Civil Procedure). (Thanks to this series of posts, I now know I am not the only law professor in America who does this. Nancy Rapoport at UNLV does the same in her Contracts classes and there are, hopefully, others out there that do something similar.)
Of course, I do not do this on the first day of class. I am not that crazy.