Has anyone else noticed the odd way the Dean’s Office and CDO have been signing off their emails lately?
“You are not alone.” “You may feel angry, upset, dispirited.” “Don’t allow this process to destroy you.”
Destroy you? And here I thought we were writing exams and applying for jobs, not fighting for our mortal existences. When did it become normal for university administrators to address students like they’re repeat callers to a suicide hotline? Are we really that fragile?
Apparently we are. Some 50 students a year present to the Health and Wellness office with an emotional or psychological issue. But according to Doron Gold, a psychotherapist whose practice is geared specifically towards lawyers (because the market permits such specialization), that figure is too low to be representative. It doesn’t account for the those who go directly to the university counseling service, seek outside help, or—and this is the big one—don’t get help at all, either because they won’t admit having a problem, or because they don’t realize they’re suffering from a treatable condition.
A study buried in the obscure Journal of Law and Health found that 40 percent of law students showed significant levels of psychological distress (compared with about two percent of the general population) and up to 40 percent suffered from depression.
Those numbers aren’t high. They’re insane.
And no, it doesn’t get better. Research out of Johns Hopkins found that lawyers have the highest prevalence of major depression of any occupation. Gold says he sees “hundreds and hundreds” of patients who exhibit “the lone sufferer syndrome.” That is, they think they’re the exception when in fact they’re the rule.
Now enter the Faculty of Law.
For all the whining about “stigma” that’s so voguish nowadays, the school condescends to this problem in a way that would be unacceptable for any health issue but a “mental” one. It empowers a Health & Wellness committee to furnish the student body with muffins, yoga, and smoothies, otherwise known as the preferred feel-good trilogy of housewives whose insurance policies don’t cover Wellbutrin.
Smoothies, really? For what we pay you’d think they could spring for something harder. At least the quacks selling homeopathic remedies have shame enough to store their sugar-water solutions in something vaguely resembling a medicine bottle.
When the situation became truly critical the Committee engaged therapy dogs, perhaps mistaking the Leaders of Tomorrow for a group of orphan children who’ve been so brutalized by some unspeakable trauma that they need to be reeducated in the ways of human compassion, lest they grow up to be sadists or Wall Street bankers.
The admin also provides a health and wellness manual, which mercifully is hidden so deep in the bowels of the website that this review will surely be its most public airing. But it provides some insight in to how the school proposes to address a problem that—as we’ve already established—has ascended to epidemic proportions.
The advice for you, mister and missus fee-paying law student in the throws of psychiatric distress, begins thusly: “chew gum.”
While you wouldn’t let Trident replace your daily dose of toothpaste, I’m afraid it’s our first line of defence in the battle for sound mental health.
But chewing gum, while clearly offering no therapeutic value, at least won’t make things worse. This is not true with respect to the balance of the suggestions.
Exercise, it says. Then get more sleep, take a bath, have a consistent schedule, eat healthier and don’t skip meals, meditate and do yoga daily (daily!), go to the movies, a play, and visit the art gallery.
Here’s a thought. When your problem is that you have too much to do and not enough time to do it, the solution usually isn’t embarking on a freewheeling quest to reenact the date scenes from Annie Hall.
Then the coup de grâce, cribbed from Korean War-era mountebank Norman Vincent Peale: “Think positively,” a gem of pseudo science claptrap that, as an instrument of healthcare, was discredited even before cigarettes.
While this operation may recreate the cozy summer camp atmosphere that’s in such high demand, it is not equal to the task of providing a healthy environment. The health and wellness regime will preserve your sanity through law school like an umbrella will keep you dry in a swimming pool.
And anyways, as a matter of basic human dignity, coping is to be reserved for chronic conditions. If contaminants in the air supply of Victoria College caused respiratory distress among 10 percent of students, we’d immediately seal the vents. If 40 percent fell ill, we’d probably burn down the building. But when it comes to mental health, we’re content with the most perfunctory solutions. Not the equivalent of oxygen tanks, mind you, but something more akin to paper surgical masks.
But for all its tone-deafness in the area of remedies, the health and wellness material betrays a remarkable sensitivity to the causes of widespread misery in our ranks. It cites “The heavy workload, 100% finals, grading average, competitive job market, and financial pressures.”
O to live in a world where cause and effect have even a passing acquaintance.
Evaluations could be holistic (as they are in medical schools). Tuition could be cheaper (as it was ten years ago). Workloads could be lightened (why not?).
Even the job market could be evened out. Lawyers could work civilized 37-hour weeks instead of an obscene 75 hours—you know, like in professions that don’t set records for psychological torment. Hell, we would have a job for every graduate rather than an unemployment rate that’s well over twice the national figure.
One can’t avoid the conclusion that the current health and wellness initiative is designed for minimum impact, while maintaining just enough of an appearance to shield the faculty from liability when something really bad happens.
Lawyers, being who they are, will make it a priority to cover their backsides. But if we ever want to make good on all the chatter about taking mental health seriously, stop being lawyers for a moment, and be human beings.