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Law students hiding mental health issues and alcohol and drug use

A “significant percentage” of American law students are grappling with mental health and alcohol and drug problems, reveals a recent study, the first to assess alcohol and drug use among law students since 1991 and the first ever to assess prescription use or misuse, mental health issues, and help-seeking attitudes.

More troubling is that law students are afraid of seeking help because they fear that it may jeopardize their chances of being admitted to the bar or getting a good job. Law students, “socialized into a competitive environment in which showing any vulnerability is discouraged,” are also afraid of the social stigma that may be associated with seeking help, according to the study.

“For a self-regulating profession, these data should be very worrisome,” warned the study entitled “Helping law students get the help they need.” “We need to do something, and we need to get started now.”

The study, conducted by a law professor, a dean of law students, and the programming director of a non-profit focused on lawyers’ mental health, surveyed more than 3,300 law students from 15 American law schools about their drinking, drug use, and mental health. Twenty-two per cent of law students reported binge drinking two or more times in the previous weeks, and almost a quarter showed signs that they should go undergo further testing for alcoholism.

Use of marijuana and cocaine appears to have increased since a 1991 survey. Fourteen per cent of law students said they used marijuana in the past 30 days (compared to eight per cent in 1991), and 2.5 per cent had used coke (compared to one per cent in 1991).

Over 14 per cent of law students reported use of some prescription drug without a prescription in the prior 12 months. Approximately 13 per cent of those with a prescription shared their prescription drugs with others in the past 12 months, with stimulants the most frequently distributed.

More than a quarter of law students reported that they had received at least one diagnosis of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis, personality disorder and/or substance use.

But law future law students are not seeking help, and nor do they intend to. Only four per cent of law students said they used a health professional to deal with alcohol or drug abuse. And while 42 per cent of would-be lawyers believed they needed help for emotional or mental health problems, roughly half actually received counselling from a health professional.

That’s because a staggering 63 per cent of students thought that seeking help was a potential threat to getting admitted to the bar, 62 per cent felt getting assistance was a potential threat to job or academic status, and 43 per cent were concerned about privacy and social stigma. Just as discouraging, 39 per cent of law students felt they could handle the problem themselves, while more than a third stated they simply don’t have the time.

Existing research suggests that a significant number of lawyers who face discipline have an underlying addiction or mental health issue that could affect their ability to fulfil their responsibilities to clients.

“Those most in need of help are least likely to seek help,” pointed out the study. “The very students who most need to understand that they will be best served by seeking help and getting the help they need are the very students who are most concerned that seeking help will be detrimental to their bar admission processes.”

That’s where the culture of law comes into play. Many law students – even before getting to law school – get advice from advisors or from lawyers they consulted to “think carefully” about disclosing information and to be “wary” of how disclosure might be perceived by law schools or by state boards of law examiners. “Character and fitness” questions on law school applications or by state bars appear to be counterproductive and may discourage students from seeking help, suggests the study.

“While in law school, students are getting messages indicating that seeking help may be problematic for their professional careers,” noted the study. “The competitive nature of law school reinforces a message that students are better off not seeking help and instead trying to handle problems on their own.”

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