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Law School And Your Mental Health

Deciding to go to law school is a big decision. And all but the most driven potential students may experience a moment or two of doubt. There are quality of life considerations to this decision too. And unfortunately, these get overlooked by many potential law students each year which result in consequences to their mental health.

Law School And Your Mental Health

Unfortunately, it is no secret that there is a correlation between law school and decreased mental health for many individuals who attend law school. While some institutions are making efforts to address the systemic side of this phenomena, most of the work to break this correlation between law school and decreased mental health will have to come from the individuals choosing law school in the form of education and preventative care.

What is it about the law school experience that contributes to decreases in mental health?

There are a number of factors in play when determining whether an individual is operating from a place of mental health or not that is completely divorced from whether someone is going to law school or not. However, law school does create some interesting interplay among these factors in ways not seen by the general population. Some of these mental health factors include age, past trauma, genetics/family of origin, and chronic stress.

1. Age

Many acute or chronic mental health issues start between the ages of 22 and 27. More than 70% of law students are under the age of 27.

2. Past Trauma

Many individuals want to go to law school so they can make the world a better place. The origin of this desire is often some kind of past trauma that was either exacerbated or alleviated by an interaction with law enforcement or the judicial system. Trauma is a psychological injury that makes one more susceptible to future illnesses. Many people choose law school from a place of empowerment. However, law school is a crucible of stressors that can erode one’s fortifications.

3. Genetics/Family of Origin

Everybody has genetic predispositions to something or another. For some, the decision to go to law school can bring out the less pleasant aspect of some families of origin. Sadly, some families do not approve of their member’s decisions to go to law school. Many think it seems foolish to forgo three years of income for more school. Some family members are afraid law school will make the student ashamed of their family of origin. Some are judgmental because many see lawyers in a negative light.

Other families are intensely proud of members who go to law school. However, they fail to realize how much time and energy it requires. They then place demands on the member that are incompatible with law school. This causes resentment, which is stressful. These proud families, while well-intentioned, may also increase pressure to succeed on the “trophy” level rather than the “make the world a better place” level which leads to an extra helping of stress.

4. Chronic Stress

There are a bunch of different types of stress, and not all stress is bad. The word stress is used most often to refer to stressors that are perceived as bad. However, there are a lot of good things in the world that are stressful too. Getting married and graduating are two examples. A stressor is anything that causes a person to react to a stimuli. Stack enough stressors together and a person experiences stress. The person’s perception of those stressors is a significant, but not dispositive, indicator on whether the person is experiencing a good kind of stress (normal reactions to normal life situations that result in growth) or a bad kind of stress (reactions to situations that are disproportionate or limit one’s growth).

For many students, law school is a three-year-long journey of stress because a roadmap for the journey is hard to find. Chronic stress inhibits executive functioning, learning, and you guessed it, mental wellness. Chronic stress also has a physiological impact that can reduce one’s physical health as well as mental health.

5. Undergoing a transformative course of education that includes an extra helping of learning about some evil strains running through humanity

By now, you’ve heard about “thinking like a lawyer.” To break down what thinking like a lawyer is (irreverently, there is more to it than this, but this is what it looks like to outsiders), it is a worldview where you operate from a risk management perspective nearly all the time and identify what can go wrong, how it can go wrong, and what you can do to make sure you don’t have to pay for it when it does go wrong.

At the same time you are learning this worldview and how to use it to make yourself a competent professional, you’re also getting a much better sense of how many different kinds of messed up and evil there is in the world. Law school uses a “case method” to teach. You have classes that are called things like Torts, Criminal Law, and Constitutional Law. In them, you read stories about people who do really obnoxious, occasionally evil, things to one another.  Many people from sheltered backgrounds get their first exposure to detailed accounts of child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other human rights violations during law school. Many of these accounts should cause distress in healthy fully functional adults! Some of this stuff is terrible. Future lawyers are learning how to deal with people in the aftermath of some of the most terrible times of their lives.

Early Strategies to Inoculate Oneself Against Poor Mental Health Outcomes During Law School

Fortunately, there are some simple strategies to help law students protect themselves!

1. Connecting with your values

For some, law school is a keeping up with the Joneses rat-race. Chasing after class rank, prestige opportunities, and highly remunerative employment because “it’s what you’re supposed to do” in law school is a sign that you’re focusing on the external rewards that come from law school. While there is nothing inherently wrong with ranking highly, participating in prestige opportunities, or securing highly remunerative employment, doing so without an underlying WHY for your drive decreases satisfaction in achievement. Gaining those things in the pursuit of your passion to change something in the world you think needs fixing, whether it is to fight for animal rights, advocate for victims, protect children, or help decrease regulatory burden on small business owners, is a healthy and wonderful thing. But securing those “trophies” for the sake of having a trophy is not a sound foundation for personal development and mental health.

So, take a few minutes now and brainstorm a list of all the things that give you a purpose. Rank them from the thing that would destroy you the most if you were to lose it to the thing that would barely be a blip on your radar if it disappeared from your life tomorrow.

Take your top five things and write out three reasons that law school and practicing law will support your efforts to keep those things in your life. Put copies of this list in several places. One so you will see it when you are making your time management decisions to serve as a reminder, the choices you make in spending your time now either support your values or separate you from your values. Another copy should go where you’ll see it whenever you do your reflecting on life. Finally, put a copy away where you’ll encounter it at some random point in the future.

2. Cultivating meaningful relationships: Remember to be social!

Law school gives you an opportunity to develop some new and amazing relationships that will stand the test of time and distance. Hopefully, you’re coming into law school with at least a small handful of meaningful relationships already in place. Remember to build in time to spend with people and to do things that will deepen and support the health of these relationships.

There is more than enough work to cover the 168 hours a week. Make sure you’re spending at least 3 to 4 of those hours each week in a social interaction that gives you energy, whether it’s going to services each week in your house of worship, or spending time with your Mom, dad or your bestie. At a minimum, spend the same amount of time each week feeding your relationships as you spend feeding your body lunch.

3. Keep moving!

Exercise is important. You need to counteract the time you spend hunched over books and your computer or in other pursuits with poor posture. Strive for at least 30 minutes of activity that doesn’t have you looking at a screen or text each day. This may be a conscious choice to park in the parking lot that is a fifteen-minute hike from the school, or going to the gym, an exercise class, or whatever floats your boat and is appropriate to your personal abilities. The better you do at caring for your body’s basic needs, the less impact stress will have on your body’s ability to fight off illness.

4. Practice positive-framing of setbacks and gratitude-oriented mindset.

It’s easy to slip into a pattern of negatively framed thoughts. If you spend more days saying #fml than #immd, you may be a good candidate for this mind hack. Negative framing can increase our stress response to an event. So, let’s say you didn’t choose to park in that distant spot to ensure you get steps, but because traffic was bad and your arrival at school was later than desired. Instead of “Ugh, I can’t believe I got stuck in the [name] lot again” try “I’m getting a couple hundred extra steps today and some weight lifting.” This type of reframing can take a stressful event from a level 3 irritant to a mere level 1 irritant.

Being more deliberate in which events we allow to be stressful allows us to reserve more resilience for the serious issues we’ll fact from time to time. So, for the copious amount of work and tasks that will soon be populating your to-do lists, instead of framing them as “I have to do x, y, and z” try “I get to learn x, cultivate skill y, and grow z.” By focusing on the privileges associated with your choice to go to law school, you’ll help yourself avoid some of the optional stressors of law school.

5. Program a few key numbers into your phone.

For those of you at schools with counseling centers, go ahead and program the number into your phone now. You may encounter a peer in need of help from a trained professional. Having the number readily available and helping someone schedule an appointment can ensure someone who needs help gets it sooner rather than later. If you are the one who needs the help, it’s one less impediment to getting it!

Mental health is just as important as physical health. Law school requires you to spend a lot of time in your head. As a result, things can get a little untidy in there. With some recognition of the possibility that mental health issues may arise, and the utilization of the above strategies (and others beyond the scope of this post such as nutrition and avoiding substances of abuse), it is possible to navigate the process and maintain good mental health throughout.

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