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Young attorneys, law students prone to mental health issues

January 25, 2017
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Members of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Yoga Club practice outside as a mechanism for coping with stress. (Photo by Dave Jaynes, courtesy of IU McKinney School of Law)

When Katie Sheean was in her first year of law school at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, she found herself getting sick, but not because of a virus spreading among students. Instead, the extreme stress and anxiety caused by her attempt to adjust to the rigors of a legal academic workload were beginning to manifest themselves in physical ways, leaving her feeling emotionally, mentally and physically drained.

Sheean’s story is not uncommon among law students, and recent data supports the theory that the stress of building a legal career can lead to an unhealthy mental state among law students and young attorneys. A 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that law students and attorneys under the age of 30 are among those likeliest to suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues and, by extension, to choose to cope with those issues in unhealthy ways.

Among a study sample of 11,516 participants, 61.1 percent reported dealing with anxiety, while 45.7 percent reported suffering from depression. The study further showed that the likelihood of struggling with those and other mental health issues, including extreme stress, decreased among older attorneys and those in more senior positions, leading to the conclusion that legal professionals just beginning their careers are likeliest to struggle with a mental illness.

That statistic was surprising to Terry Harrell, executive director of the Indiana Supreme Court’s Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, who said those conclusions about young attorneys were previously unknown. Through her work at JLAP, Harrell and her team works with service providers across the state to connect attorneys struggling with mental or other illnesses with the help they need.

While anxiety and depression are the illnesses most commonly associated with the phrase “mental health,” Harrell said JLAP also treats substance abuse and addictions as mental health issues. That inclusion of substance abuse is important because the Hazelden Betty Ford study also shows that roughly 20.6 percent of participants answered alcohol-related questions that scored at a level of problematic drinking.

Martin Martin

Attorneys younger than the age of 30 were among the likeliest to abuse alcohol, with 31.9 percent of participants that age scoring within the “problematic drinking” range.

Even before the Hazelden Betty Ford study, JLAP was in the habit of providing services to law students by speaking about the importance of wellness at Indiana’s law schools. Further, Allison Martin, a clinical professor of law at IU McKinney, incorporates discussions about mental and physical well-being into her Professional Responsibility class, a course all law students are required to take.

Martin frequently invites Harrell to speak on wellness issues with students in the course, but often, students are hesitant to vocally discuss their problems in front of their classmates. But when Harrell’s public presentation is over, Martin said her students will line up and wait for the chance to discuss their problems privately with her, showing that stigma is still a hurdle to overcoming mental health problems.

Many of the wellness problems — mental and physical — that occur during law school are born from acute stress, especially in the early semesters when students are learning to adjust to the workload and behavioral expectations that come with being a law student, said Sheean, now a 3L.

Martin, who has also worked extensively with the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, said her goal in teaching her students about wellness is to help them to understand the best coping mechanisms for acutely stressful situations in law school and in life.

Sheean Sheean

With the help of former law student Melissa Brown, Sheean introduced a new coping mechanism to the IU McKinney campus — a yoga club.

Brown, who is a certified yoga instructor, began her first session of the club with the theme of “unloading the shopping cart of stress,” urging her students to mentally address each of the stressors in their lives and remove them from their minds one-by-one. Sheean said carrying that mental image through her time in law school has helped her compartmentalize her problems in her mind and, thus, has enabled her to deal with her stress more effectively.

Finding effective coping mechanisms — whether that’s yoga, seeing a therapist or receiving more advanced medical treatment — is critical to properly managing mental health issues and preventing them from becoming larger problems, Martin said. And as the study’s results imply, those coping mechanisms become even more important during the transition from law students to attorneys.

Sara McClammer, chair of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section’s Wellness Committee, recalled the culture shock of transitioning from student to practicing attorney.

McClammer McClammer

Law schools don’t often teach about the day-to-day requirements of being an attorney, so young attorneys enter their first legal jobs — which are often also their first professional jobs — often feeling stupid at work because of their inexperience and dealing with even more stress than in law school. But through the Wellness Committee, McClammer said she hopes to create a safe haven for young attorneys who are struggling with extreme stress or mental health issues.

In the past, the bar has focused more on physical health than mental health, offering activities such as 5K runs to promote physical fitness. But the goal of the Wellness Committee will be to address the issue of wellness more generally and offer services such as meditation sessions and classes on identifying the early warning signs of a mental health issue, McClammer said.

The most common warning sign is a consistent change in a person’s “baseline,” or normal behavior, Harrell said. For example, if an attorney who is normally ready to begin the work day at 7 a.m. begins coming into the office later and with a less-enthusiastic attitude, that is likely a sign that there are deeper issues that need to be addressed, Harrell said.

Combatting stigma is one of the most serious hurdles to mental health treatment, Martin said. For example, the fear of failing a character and fitness examination can prevent law students from reaching out in their time of need, she said.

But Bradley Skolnik, executive director of the Indiana Board of Law Examiners, said students should never avoid seeking help just because they are afraid of looking bad on a bar exam application. Rather, Skolnik said a willingness to identify and respond to mental health issues actually reflects well on bar applicants because it shows that they are doing their best to deal with their illnesses in an attempt to better both their careers and their lives.

Further, Harrell emphasized that the work of JLAP is entirely confidential, so lawyers who turn to the organization for help need not fear that their peers will learn about their struggles.

Additionally, Harrell said JLAP is often associated with attorneys who are struggling with substance abuse or addiction. But legal professionals who simply need someone to help them talk through their stress can be served by JLAP, she said.•

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