How to Care for Your Mental Health During Grad School
Studying to become a lawyer can be a stepping stone to fulfilling your dreams of litigating cases in a courtroom. The process of becoming a lawyer is not always without its drawbacks, however. One of the negative outcomes associated with graduate study is the increased rates of stress among post-graduates–in particular, among law school students. According to the Dave Nee Foundation, which works with mental health issues affecting law students and lawyers, 96 percent of law students report feeling increased stress, compared with 70 percent of med school students and 41 percent of graduate students. At the completion of law school, 20 to 40 percent of graduates have developed some sort of psychological dysfunction. Much of this psychological dysfunction will follow law school graduates into their years of practice as a lawyer, sometimes with devastating results.
Managing stress before, during, and after law school, therefore, is of the utmost importance. If you can get a handle on the causes of your stress, learn to recognize your triggers, and learn positive, effective ways to manage that stress, you can save yourself from what could be a lifetime of psychological troubles.
Common Mental Health Issues for Grad Students
The risk of anxiety and depression is more than six times higher among graduate students than it is in the general public. Law students often begin law school feeling fulfilled and satisfied, with good mental health. After the first year has completed, however, they tend to experience increased anxiety and depression. In one study, it was found that law students were among the most demoralized, dissatisfied and depressed of any graduate student population.
Why is law school so stressful? It is a completely different environment from undergraduate school and one for which many students are not fully prepared. Subjects and classes in law school are often more difficult than any studies you’ve undertaken in the past. Courses are usually taught differently, and sometimes graded differently, than others you’ve encountered. It’s no wonder that stress levels skyrocket among law school students.
Consistently high stress levels can lead to a myriad of mental health issues. These include depression, sleeping disorders, stress and anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. There is no shame or stigma in seeking help if you experience any of these mental disorders. A 2016 study discovered that while 42 percent of law school students felt that they needed counseling for mental health issues, only half of them actually sought help from a mental health professional.
One of the most prevalent disorders among law students, affecting as much as 71 percent of all law school students, depression includes feelings of sadness or emptiness, losing pleasure in things that you used to enjoy doing, isolating yourself from friends, and trouble eating or sleeping. It can be triggered by a combination of biological, genetic, psychological and environmental factors. In extreme cases, depression can lead to suicide. A study of over 300 graduate students at Emory University found that more than 7 percent of them had considered suicide at one time in their lives.
Sleep issues and disorders are quite prevalent among college students, particularly graduate students. In one study, 27 percent of college students were found to be at risk for sleeping disorders. Commonly seen sleep disorders among law school students include insomnia, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, and sleepwalking. Often, sleep disorders go hand-in-hand with other psychiatric issues.
Stress and Anxiety Disorders
Stress levels are much higher among law school students, as noted above. Testing anxiety can also increase in law school, as the pressure is on to do well. At the beginning of your law school journey, you hope to ace the LSAT to get into your chosen law schools. By the time you are nearing the completion of law school, you are taking the bar exam, another high-pressure test, upon which your entire future career depends.
Continued elevated levels of stress can lead to anxiety disorders. A 2015 study by the American Bar Association discovered that 76 percent of law students demonstrated symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Signs of anxiety include fatigue, feeling on edge all the time, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, and feeling irritable and tense. This could also lead to social anxiety (anxiety in social situations) and panic attacks.
Graduate students, including law school students, are more likely to abuse substances and alcohol in response to stress than undergraduates. Fifteen percent of grad students have reported using stimulants improperly during their lifetime. In a 2016, study, it was found that 25 percent of law school students had shown signs of a drinking problem, but only 4 percent had sought treatment. Some signs of substance abuse among college students may include:
- Binge drinking on a regular basis
- Deteriorating grades
- Change in appearance, often developing eating disorders
- Higher incidence of criminal activities
- Decreased interest in extracurricular activities
- Shifts in sleeping patterns
- Withdrawal from “healthy” friends
- Spending more time in negative social circles with other substance abusers
- Showing uncharacteristic mood swings
- Reckless behavior
Recognize the Signs of Burnout
What is burnout? According to American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who coined the term in the 1970s, burnout is used to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals, particularly in the “helping” professions (such as doctor, lawyer, social worker, etc.). Today, however, the term burnout is used to describe anyone who experiencing too much stress, no matter what they do. It can be difficult to differentiate exhaustion from burnout, as stress can cause normal exhaustion, which is not a sign of disease. Burnout, on the other hand, describes a set of symptoms that is more than the “normal” response to stress. Three main classifications of symptoms are considered signs of burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Feeling unable to cope and overwhelmed by life
- Sleeping habits might have changed (sleep too much or not enough)
- Low energy
- May exhibit pain and/or gastrointestinal problems
Alienation from work- (or study-) related activities
- Cynicism about one’s working (studying) conditions and colleagues/fellow students
- Distancing oneself emotionally from work/study environment
- Feeling numb about work/study
- Negativity about everyday tasks, both at home and at work/study
- Difficulty concentrating
- Constant worrying
- Lacking creativity
How to Create Time for Your Mental Health
Taking care of yourself as a law school student includes making time for your mental health. This can be difficult, especially when you are balancing school, work and family responsibilities. It is vitally important, however, to care for your mental health now, so that you can avoid more serious problems later on in your career as a lawyer. Here are some ways you can prioritize your mental health as a law school student.
Many graduate students have problems with scheduling work, school and family commitments. This might seem that you’re adding just one more responsibility to the mix, but it really helps to schedule time to take care of your mental health. Making your “self” a priority is important and should be given as great of an emphasis in your life as your studies. Make sure to also schedule time to eat three healthy meals each day, get enough sleep, be active at least three times weekly, and schedule relaxation and meditation time each day. Time that is spent on relaxation is not time wasted – it is time invested in creating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Seek Professional Help
There is no shame and stigma in getting professional help if you need it. So many resources are available to law school students these days. They include your law school’s counseling department or Office of Student Services, therapists both online and in-person, support groups, and trusted advisors. You do not need to have something “actively” wrong with you in order to pursue therapy. Having an outlet to express the stress you feel as a law school student is a great way to prevent more serious psychological problems from developing down the line.
Reduce Credit Hours If Possible
For some law school students, switching from a full-time class schedule to part-time is a great way to relieve stress. Particularly if you have other pressing responsibilities, such as a job or a family, going to school part-time can be one solution to alleviate or lessen much of the stress you are experiencing. Of course, this can’t apply to all law school students, as some are on scholarships that require full-time enrollment or have other constraints dictating that they attend full-time. Attending law school part-time will also increase the length of time that it takes to get your degree and are able to start working as a lawyer.