'Our law students need help.' Study finds higher rates of mental health problems

Students walk in the courtyard of the law school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor
Students walk in the courtyard of the law school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S., September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
  • Rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among law students have increased since 2014
  • But binge drinking declined

(Reuters) - Today’s law students are dealing with mental health challenges including anxiety and depression at a higher rate than their predecessors in 2014, a new study has found.

Nearly 69% of respondents from 39 law schools surveyed in 2021 reported that they needed help for emotional or mental health problems in the past year. That’s up from 42% from the 2014 version of the same survey, according to a trio of academics whose findings are slated to appear in an upcoming edition of the University of Louisville Law Review.

More students are also coming to law school with diagnosed mental health issues they found. Nearly a third of the 5,400 students in the latest survey reported being diagnosed for depression at some point in their life — up from 18% in 2014. Similarly, almost 40% of the 2021 respondents said they had been diagnosed with anxiety at some point, up from 21% seven years earlier.

“What is clear is that our law students need help,” the researchers wrote in their study, "'It’s OK to Not Be OK’: the 2021 Survey of Law Student Well-Being.”

The authors found that a greater focus on law student well-being in recent years hasn’t translated to lower rates of such problems. Instead, they wrote that law student wellness decreased by many measures between 2014 and 2021.

In addition to higher rates of depression and anxiety, 11% of the 2021 survey respondents reported suicidal thoughts during the past year — up from 6% in 2014.

"It's disappointing that we didn't make more headway as law schools generally," said David Jaffe, associate dean of student affairs at American University Washington College of Law and one of the co-authors of both the 2014 and 2021 studies. "We still have our work cut out for us."

Drinking was one area in which the authors reported what they described as a positive trend: The percentage of students who reported drinking enough to get drunk during the past 30 days fell to 44% in the new survey from 53% in 2014. The pandemic could be a factor in that lower rate, the authors wrote, given that there were fewer opportunities for social drinking in the spring of 2021 when the survey was conducted.

The pandemic may also have exacerbated some other mental health challenges the 2021 survey cohort reported, according to the paper.

Previous studies — including the 2014 report — have found that law students overall have elevated rates of mental health and substance abuse problems. But recent research has shown alarming rates of depression, suicidal thoughts and binge drinking among undergraduates as well.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com