Maryland Carey Law sharpens focus on supporting student well-being

Lawyers impact the world. They work for justice, improve commerce, and help clients succeed in extremely high-stakes situations. While highly rewarding, that responsibility can be a pressing weight, which all too often blunts the ability of some attorneys to attend to their own well-being.  

Likewise, the road to becoming an attorney is notoriously stressful. Law school has always been a highly competitive, tension-filled environment. A 2016 ABA and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study concluded that around 10% of students entering law school experience mental health issues like depression and anxiety. In the 1L year, that percentage goes up to 32% and, by the third year, soars to 40%. With the addition of a global pandemic and heightened societal strife, law schools are facing a mental health crisis.  

“We know that law students nationally have experienced a serious increase in anxiety and depression in the past couple of years and our students are no exception,” said Dean Donald Tobin. “We know it from our own experiences and the stories students share with us.” 

That is why, added Tobin, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law takes an active role in helping students manage mental health issues and is committed to creating a culture in which overall wellness is a priority.  

The first step, says Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Michele Hayes, is to remove the stigma around seeking help, which is especially challenging in the legal profession. “Suffering in silence can lead to tragedy,” she said. “We want students to know that now is the time to make wellness care a top priority, and that doing so will pay off in their careers and personal lives long after law school.” The Student Affairs staff, added Hayes, is always available to assist students going through difficulties—academic, personal, or otherwise. 

Professor Kathi Hoke, who teaches the Maryland Carey Law Public Health Law Clinic, agrees, pointing to the pride legal professionals have long taken in stoically enduring the pressure, which has fostered a culture that leads to high rates of burnout, substance use disorders, and suicide. 

“Change should start in law school by providing an environment in which students are willing to ask for help when mental health problems arise,” said Hoke. “That is our goal at Maryland Carey Law where faculty genuinely care for students’ well-being, provide time and space for students to express needs and seek support, and push against tired tropes of mental health needs as weakness.” 

New initiatives at the law school, such as added opportunities to informally access faculty and this fall’s inaugural Kindness Week, which emphasized both kindness to others and self-care, are helping create that supportive environment. Additionally, Tobin has formed a working group, including students, faculty, staff, and alumni, to explore and recommend actions the law school can take to support students’ mental health, be it enacting more flexible policies, offering specific programming, or requiring training for faculty and staff. 

When students are ready to seek help, there are multiple free resources available. The UMB Student Counseling Center provides counseling and psychiatric services, as well as crisis support services, workshops and presentations on wellness topics, drop-in advice sessions, and fast, confidential referrals to support services through weekly text check-ins. Students also have access to mental health services provided by the Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA) Lawyer Assistance Program. 

Even when students are comfortable with the idea of pursuing counseling, however, many still fear there will be consequences when they get to the character and fitness section of the bar application.  

Lisa Caplan, LCSW-C is director of the MSBA Lawyer Assistance Program, which provides free, confidential counseling for mental health, substance abuse, and other personal concerns to Maryland’s lawyers, judges, and law school students. She also completes assessments of bar applicants referred by the State Board of Law Examiners. Disclosing mental health issues, Caplan assures students when she visits law school classes, does not necessarily hinder admission to the bar, and pursuing help is seen as being proactive. 

“I have had plenty of students with significant mental health issues who have gone through treatment for substance use, even legal issues, and they have become members of the bar,” said Caplan. 

Caplan also encourages students to contact her early in their law school careers to map out and record their steps in attending to their wellness so when they need to make disclosures, they have proof of taking proactive measures to manage any mental health issues. 

That is what 3L Saul Slowik did. The Army veteran, who has sought counseling in the past for service-connected mental health issues, checked in with Caplan during his first year and stayed in touch. When it came time to apply for a 2L summer internship with the federal government, he was especially glad to have familiarized Caplan with his situation. The security clearance went through without a hitch, partly, he said, because he could show his treatment record and offer testimony from Caplan affirming that he was stable, active in his treatment, and seeking help when he needed it.   

Slowik’s message for other students is that if they feel like they need help, they should get it. “These issues don’t get better with time; they get worse,” he warned, “and the deeper you bury them, the more violently they are going to come up.” 

Caplan affirms that avoiding treatment can derail careers. “I have seen people who have not reached out for help, and they’ve reached a point where their substance use or mental health has gotten out of hand,” she said. Many of those people wind up losing their jobs or going to her for monitoring after attorney grievances have been filed against them. 

Thankfully, noted Hoke, attitudes are changing when it comes to asking for help. She has seen an increase in students reaching out when they are struggling and believes that is due, in part, to the faculty’s dedication to providing a classroom environment that encourages sharing and empathy, making office hours and one-on-one time readily available, and sharing their own vulnerabilities.   

“I have guided students through anxiety, harmful personal relationships, and the loss of loved ones. Some need a compassionate ear, others might need due date extensions; for some I facilitate access to mental health care,” said Hoke. “I consider that part of my job both because I care deeply about each student and because a student suffering a mental health crisis cannot engage in class or learn the law effectively. It is a privilege to be trusted by my students at these times.” 

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