Is law school making you sick?

By: September 6, 2017

Mental-health issues, such as depression and anxiety, often hit law students hard. Charlotte was one of them

mental health

Charlotte knew something was seriously wrong. She was halfway through her second semester of law school at the University of Toronto, and her mind was unravelling. The nights full of reading caselaw and writing research memos were growing longer. Her sleep suffered. Charlotte was desperately trying to maintain the A grades she’d always earned. As finals neared, she had panic attacks a few times a week. “I remember feeling like everything was spinning out of my control,” she says. Her pulse would skyrocket and she would hyperventilate. “I felt like I was headed straight towards a crash that I couldn’t do anything to stop, no matter how hard I tried.”

One night in March, she tearfully begged her supportive father to take her to the emergency room. “I told him I couldn’t handle it, that it was too much,” she recalls. “I felt like everything was so out of control.” He drove her to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. On arrival, Charlotte spoke with a psychiatrist in the emergency department. “Something is wrong with me,” she said, “and I need help.”

Charlotte (who asked that we not use her real name) is far from alone in her experience. Ample research suggests a connection between lawyering and mental-health issues. One study, published in 2016 by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, found, after interviewing 12,825 lawyers, that three in five of them suffered from self-reported anxiety. Nearly half had lived with depression at some point during their career; one in 10 had experienced suicidal thoughts.

In Canada, similar research is scant. But a 2012 survey by Ipsos Reid found that close to 50 percent of lawyers have suffered from some sort of anxiety. So what’s going on?

It turns out, law school is a big part of the answer. Before becoming a law student, Charlotte, who grew up in Toronto, had never struggled with anxiety. Though she’d suffered through bouts of depression in high school, she was still functioning: getting out of bed, going to school, eating proper meals. By 18, her depression had lifted, and it stayed away throughout her undergrad.

But then she went to law school. “First year quickly sapped the enthusiasm out of me,” she says. “I felt like I was back in high school — we had lockers and everyone went to the same six classes. I didn’t have a lot of agency over what I was learning. I felt like I was on a treadmill, just going through the motions.”

Charlotte worked hard, though. And her first-semester grades were excellent, earning her a summer-job offer at a Bay Street firm. But it didn’t make her happy. “There’s so much groupthink in law school,” she says. “I came in saying I wanted to practise labour law and represent workers. And then, just because I did well on my exams and all these Bay Street firms wanted me, and everyone else wanted a Bay Street job, I thought I wanted a Bay Street job. I did this crazy one-eighty in the span of four months.”

By second semester, Charlotte felt like she was drowning. That’s when she had a breakdown and made an emergency trip to CAMH, where she was diagnosed with anxiety. After that night, she went through a two-week outpatient anxiety program, which gave her the tools to manage crises, recognize symptoms and calm herself down. The staff started her on a carefully monitored medication regime. They also recommended that she contact the counsellor services at the University of Toronto (which she did) and work with her family doctor on further treatment.

Shortly after, Charlotte deferred her first-year exams to August and took a one-year mental-health leave. During her time off, she spent six months at a Legal Aid clinic, helping workers file insurance claims. She returned to law school the following law school making you sick?

What happened to Charlotte is not uncommon. For law students, even the smallest of problems can feel enormous, explains Doron Gold, a staff clinician at Homewood Health, which runs the Ontario legal profession’s free and confidential member-assistance program. Even the prospect of a bad exam, he says, can throw students into a tailspin. First, they worry that a poor grade will cripple their chances in the legal job market. Then they remember their student debt and panic, fearing they’ll never pay it off. All this over an exam they haven’t yet taken. “When law students aren’t mastering their lives, it’s tantamount to failure in their minds,” says Gold. “Really, it’s just human vulnerability.”

On her year off, Charlotte began a regimen of talk therapy. When she went back to law school, she graduated with honours.

After graduation, she articled in a government department, and now works there as a junior lawyer. On the job, she’s encountered
a new set of stressors. Nine months into her career, the intense workload led to another breakdown and a six-week mental-health leave.

These days, she’s back at work, and her employers listen more closely when she tells them she’s overwhelmed. But she still suffers from symptoms of anxiety. “I wish I could say that it’s something that will just go away,” she says. “But it’s something I’ll have to manage for the rest of my life.”

Looking back on Charlotte’s story, she did one of the most important things right. Once she identified that she had a mental-health problem, she sought help. We spoke to two mental-health experts to get their advice on how to stay healthy in law school and beyond.

1. Don’t squander your leisure time

In your spare hours, eat right, sleep, exercise and hang out with supportive friends and family, says Joanne Clarfield Schaefer, a stress-resilience coach and former Bay Street lawyer. If you’re still struggling to manage negative thoughts, she suggests a timed brain- dump. Set a timer for 10 minutes, and then write down (or say out loud) the worst-case scenario of whatever is causing you grief. Allow yourself to mull it over for 10 minutes, and walk away once the timer goes off. “If you say it or write it out, it loses its power.” And, she adds, don’t watch stress-inducing, suspenseful shows like True Detective or Law and Order: SVU before bed — listen to a comedy podcast, or watch something that’s guaranteed to make you laugh.

2. Seek professional help

Are you feeling so overwhelmed that you’re out of control? Are you with-drawing from relationships? Are you smoking pot to get through the day? Are you so stressed that you’re having trouble getting out of bed? Are you self-medicating with drugs or alcohol? If you answer yes to any of these questions, Doron Gold suggests making an appointment with your university’s counselling service. Some Canadian law schools — such as Osgoode Hall, the University of Toronto, the University of Victoria and the University of Windsor — have their own in-house counsellors.

3. Consider leaving law

If, after landing your first law job, you find yourself unhappy, Gold says you should try to identify why. If you feel isolated from your co-workers, consider requesting a desk change. If you’re feeling overlooked, consider moving to a smaller firm. If your work isn’t lining up with your values, consider changing the type of law you practise. But if those changes don’t work, evaluate if law is the right path for you. “The law is not the Mafia,” says Gold. “You can get out.”

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