We welcome back guest writer Alexandra Muskat to discuss mental health in law school and some advice for keeping yourself mentally healthy during the stressful time that is law school.
Nothing about law school has stayed with me more than the comments I got when I was applying to school. My roommate’s response was, “Why? It’s like supposed to be…awful.” Then, a few weeks after I sent my application in, I spoke to a friend who was a first year, and she told me she was dropping out after one semester. The anxiety and depression had just become too much for her, and she wasn’t willing to continue the downward spiral.
To say these remarks scared the crap out of me, and added to the fear I had about starting law school, is an understatement. I don’t think I can actually do it justice. My first year was fraught with anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. It’s hard for me to admit that my mind spent time in that dark place, but I think it’s important to be upfront about the emotional struggle I went through in law school because it ultimately led me to the path I’m on.
Did you know that lawyers make up a considerable percentage of the national suicide rate each year? In 2015, the ABA conducted a study on lawyers and discovered that 28% suffered from depression, 19% from anxiety, and 11.5% had suicidal thoughts at some point during their career. To put those numbers into perspective, only 12% of active military members suffer from depression – and they go to war! What does that say about the legal field?
Law school is stressful, and life as an attorney won’t be any better unless we take the steps to make it so. Below you’ll find the tools I used to increase my mental health while still in school, and that I continue today.
If you haven’t heard me say it before, let me say it again: The. Best. Thing. You. Can. Do. For. Your. Mental. Health. Is. Get. Proper. Sleep.
Sleep is important for mental health because it gives your brain time to unwind. In sleep, our brains are left to restore the body and the mind, our memory is enhanced, and we are able to stave off disease.
To get proper sleep, get into bed before 10pm, if you can, make sure your room is dark, relatively cool, and that there are no lights or ambient sound to bother you. I know this sounds hard, especially if you live with other people, but some of the things that I did to ensure my sleep space was healthy were to buy blackout curtains, a fan, and a sunlight alarm clock (a clock that plugs into a lamp and allows the light to come on slowly before growing bright).
Did you know exercise actually affects the size of your brain? It makes it grow! Bigger brains mean more space for memory, skills, and intelligence. Plus, it boosts mood (hello endorphins!), reduces anxiety and depression by boosting the neurotransmitter GABA that helps reduce stress, and prevents memory loss. Some ways to get regular exercise in during law school are to take 20-30 minutes a day to just walk. Exercise doesn’t have to be intense to be effective.
I didn’t know how much exercise affected my mental health for the better until I went to law school and went three months without it. My first winter break, I spent almost every day in the ocean. I am fortunate enough to have grown up in Miami Beach, surrounded by a city that is obsessed with the ocean. I can still remember taking a boat three or four miles out from shore, jumping into the water, and feeling alive again. It was like the stress of the semester just melted away. When I went back to school, I joined a gym and made daily movement a part of my routine.
Acknowledging what you are grateful for has a direct effect on your happiness. Research has shown that individuals who are grateful are much happier people. Gratitude helps you build better relationships, live in the moment, and be more resilient, and those factors in turn improve your mental health by reducing stress.
Learning to be more grateful is a simple exercise: each day upon waking, or at night right before you fall asleep, write down three things you are grateful for in that moment. That act of writing it down makes it true, and it’s nice, when you’re having an off day, to look back on what you’ve been grateful for – it snaps you out of the funk quicker, I think.
Counselors & Professors
I think one of the most under-utilized tools for better mental health in law school are the school counselors and professors. The counselors are there for a reason. During my first year, I was at my wits-end with stress and depression, so I turned to the professionals. I visited the campus counselor, even though there was such a heavy stigma surrounding it, and I got tools for how to cope that helped me get through law school. Do I think I’m a weaker person for having to ask for help? No way. I am stronger. I saw a gap in my mental health, and I asked for a way to heal it, not just to jump over it.
If you aren’t comfortable going to the school counselor, check in with your professors. Nobody knows what you’re going through better than they do. They’ve all been in your shoes. And sure, some of them just want you to suffer like they did – and they perpetuate the problem. But there are a many who truly want you to succeed in a healthy way. My last year and a half of school, I learned to lean into these individuals. I asked for help. I asked for guidance. And my requests were met with kindness and compassion. One of them in particular is the reason I write about what I write about. He taught me how to be resilient, and he is the reason I am pursuing the life I want.
Being in law school is stressful. Learning that much material, trying to ace tests, find a summer job, and prepare for the bar is time consuming and tedious. But it shouldn’t be allowed to tank your mental health in addition to that. If you feel like it is, try out the tools above. Choose to put your mental health first. I did, and it may have saved my life.
Suicide is preventable. If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally, ask for help. Call 1-800-273-8255 to talk.