Saturday, January 21, 2006

Student Depression: Where Do We Come In?

At the recent annual meeting of AALS, James. J. White of the University of Michigan Law School made the provocative observation that law school professors may be taking themselves a little too seriously when they characterize law school as the primary cause of high levels of depression among law students.  He suggests that other factors may be every bit as important and that the stress-induced depression afflicting many students may be the inevitable result of engaging in a very demanding pursuit.

I have to agree with him in many respects.  During any three-year period, "life happens"; and just because one enrolls in law school, one cannot expect to be free of the normal traumas and tragedies of life until school ends.  In addition, the demands of law school parallel the demands of the profession; so no one really gets a pass on stress, failures, or disappointments either in school or afterward. 

We therefore cannot hope to eliminate most of the stresses afflicting our students.  We cannot fool students into believing that the practice will be largely stress-free or that there will not be failures or that life will step politely aside in those times when the practice seemingly needs their complete attention.  Even if we could eliminate that stress in law school, our students would be blindsided by the demands of practice, caught without having developed the coping skills essential to emotional survival in an exceptionally difficult profession.

Even so, I remain convinced that we must step up and help students learn to cope effectively with the stress of law school and to avoid the depression to which too many students and lawyers succumb.  It is true that the high level of depression among law students exists for a variety of reasons, some of it the result of the inevitable demands of the legal profession, some of it the result of unnecessarily damaging pedagogical approaches, and some of it the result of events and emotional dynamics that would have existed regardless of whether the student had enrolled in law school.  Those realities, however, underscore why we should actively engage in teaching our students how to survive those stresses.

One of the skills that lawyers must master is the ability to handle stress and to avoid depression without succumbing to self-destructive behaviors.  Law school is the natural place to begin that process, and professors and academic support professionals are the natural choices to provide that help.  After all, part of what we are doing is helping students acquire the skills to succeed in the practice of law.  We have learned, I hope, to cope successfully with the stresses of the profession; why should we not deliberately help our students to do the same?

What I find most insightful in Prof. White's observations is that we should not deceive ourselves about the inevitability of stress in our profession, and we should not convince ourselves that all such stress could be eliminated if we just taught the law properly.  Failing to understand those realities can lead us to castigate our colleagues and ourselves unfairly; to make bad pedagogical choices; and to teach our students to blame their difficulties on the school, when in fact the causes of those difficulties are complex and often self-inflicted.

That said, we still have a genuine responsibility to help our students learn to cope with the inevitable difficulties of pursuing a law degree, and we should work hard to reduce or eliminate unnecessary stresses caused by our pedagogical choices.  We should invest energy and resources in helping our students learn to handle the stresses of the profession amid the stresses of normal traumas and tragedies of life.  We should also convince our colleagues that adding unnecessarily to the inevitably stressful dynamics of a demanding profession makes no pedagogical or professional sense. 

We should also not be misled by the fact that most students survive the pressures of legal education and go on to graduate and practice law.  That they graduate does not mean they have developed healthy coping strategies.  We know that many students and lawyers learn to cope using alcohol or other substances and many others suffer serious personal consequences because they cannot balance the demands of practice with the demands of their personal lives.  We also know, if we are honest with ourselves, that many students suffer unnecessary emotional damage in law school and carry it into the profession.

It is not our responsibility to make the world perfect, and we should not berate ourselves or our colleagues because our profession can be unforgiving in the demands it places on those who pursue it.   

It is our responsibility, however, to teach our students how to live successfully in that profession.  We owe it to the profession, to our students, and to our students' future clients.  We have the ability and the means to purge our law schools of those avoidable dynamics that begin a pattern of damage and self-destructive behavior in too many students' lives.  We have the knowledge and the opportunity to help our students cope with the unavoidable mix of professional and personal demands that life in this profession will inevitably place on them.

We are neither the sole source of nor the sole solution to our students' emotional and psychological challenges.  Professor White is right:  we are not nearly so important in the world.  We are, however, powerful players for good or for ill in the midst of those challenges, and that fact carries with it responsibilities we must not ignore.  (dbw)

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