Our Secret Bell Jars

Akhil Sheth
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law

There’s a crisis of silence at UCI Law. We debate course schedules and coffee-cart food, sure. But if we’re going to be that trailblazing law school upon a hill that serves as a beacon for others, there’s an issue much more pressing that needs to emerge from the shadows: our students’ mental health.

Many of us are a little broken. I am. I was a lonely, only child whose most faithful friends were books. When I was eight, my mom tried to kill herself. At twelve, I started high school, which is around the time my own depression began. My parents’ marriage turned into a Jarndycian divorce, and I was alternatingly sad or angry at the world. I escaped here. But as grateful as I’ve been for the four walls of UCI Law, they haven’t always protected me from problems within and without. 1L was a struggle not to quit; 2L was a lot of sleeping in cars and on couches; 3L’s been about hitting rock bottom, getting help, and committing to getting better.

And, I’m not alone here. Based on my conversations with my classmates, I’m convinced: UCI Law isn’t an exception to the growing mountain of largely-ignored empirical research that suggests law students face unique and serious mental health issues—issues that only get worse in the profession. The potential consequences are grave—beyond our individual welfare, such issues threaten the quality of legal service we provide, especially when combined with the alcohol and prescription drug abuse that run rampant in the field. I don’t know what the prevalence of emotional health issues is among our student body, or how it compares to other law schools, but I can guess why such issues might exist here, in particular. You don’t build an entire law school sympathetic to society’s outsiders without bringing in a few outsiders yourself—people who have been marginalized and who’ve experienced some flavor of the hardship that plagues those we serve. And, you don’t go through life as an outsider without picking up a few scars—scars that can take years to heal, especially when tested by the pressures incident to building a brand new law school while attending a brand new law school.

We don’t have enough safe space to talk about our scars, as an industry or as a law school. It’s dangerous to talk too loudly about these things. For a profession that’s supposed to be full of folks who understand rational argument, we’re often stubbornly irrational. The stigma that’s associated with mental illness in society-at-large seems only worse, if anything, within the hyper-competitive legal industry. We often don’t much accept any perceived weakness, and we have less tolerance and compassion for mental ailments than we do for the physical. Even the most patient partner/professor is more accepting of a junior associate/student missing a meeting because she was bedridden with the flu than because she was bedridden with depression, even if both are equally real. This is probably because we understand other disorders better than emotional illness, and when one of us has a cold or cancer, the rest of us can see it. But just because we don’t adequately understand and can’t always independently verify mental health issues doesn’t mean we should relegate them to the darkness or subject them to ignorance-borne prejudice. How problematic is it to only acknowledge the existence of things we fully understand or can directly experience?

How do we fix this? Changing the broader legal industry will be tough, but we can start with our community. Dean Schroeder is a grossly underappreciated goddess of empathy, finals-week therapy dogs are fun, and there is at least one great counselor at the UCI Counseling Center. But we need more. Certainly, not every minor malaise need become an issue at a Dean’s Coffee. But surely, there’s a balance between that and our current level of discomfort with discussing these problems openly. Let’s commit to figuring out how big of a problem this is while also respecting privacy issues. Let’s get a mental health counselor dedicated to the law school if the need supports it (as I’m certain it does). Let’s talk about other things we can do to give our brothers and sisters who struggle some support. Let’s get the conversation out in the open.