Law School Deans Target Alcohol and Substance Abuse and Wellness at Attorney at Law Magazine Roundtable

When former Poyner Spruill attorney and Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst committed suicide January 30, it was a grim reminder that suicide is the third leading cause of death for lawyers. Depression among lawyers is four times the rate of the public.

Law schools are increasingly embracing their ability to address mental health and substance abuse before students go into practice. I assembled a roundtable on February 4 to talk about these challenges with UNC Law School Dean Martin Brinkley, Campbell Law School Dean J. Rich Leonard and NCCU Law School Dean Browne C. Lewis at Welwynn Outpatient Center in Raleigh. Duke Law School Dean Kerry Abrams declined our invitation.

Lewis Finch and Macon Moye of Welwynn and Nicole Ellington of NC Lawyers Assistance Program joined the panel, which was moderated by NC Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman, a member of the board of NC BarCARES.

Inman: Mental health and wellness in the legal profession is a top priority every single day. Lawyers and judges whose names you don’t recognize sometimes lose the struggle because they’re not getting help.

Ellington: With lawyers it takes a while for them to reach their bottom experiencing a lot of pain and suffering along the way so being able to access help earlier is very helpful, especially as early as law school. For them to be able to learn that if they’re coping in an unhealthy way, if they are avoiding stress, this will not serve them down the road. Developing healthier coping mechanisms in law school will help when they practice law.

Leonard: Our pedagogy frankly is designed to produce moderate anxiety. So, I think, the real issue is, how do we find those students who have plunged into such severe anxiety and depression, that it really is impairing their performance.

Brinkley: For most law students, life has been a long series of successes by the time they get to law school. They have become so used to the praise of other people, to measuring themselves by it, that they are addicted to that praise without knowing it. It’s what they’ve come to count on the way they count on oxygen. And when law school starts, suddenly they’re put in an environment where that praise is in short supply. It comes as a shock to some. I tell our first years: I hate to tell you this, but only 10% of you are going to be in the top 10% of the class. And when it doesn’t work out and praise isn’t there in the same way, they forget how talented they are. Depression can be right around the corner.

Lewis: I think because of the COVID pandemic, there’s a lot of anxiety. The pandemic is not the sole cause of the anxiety. Students are being impacted by the political divide and other negative things that are happening in the country. For example, we recently had bomb threats at the HBCU law schools, and that has heightened anxiety.

Finch: The folks who come into our facility are high-functioning adults. These are people who have knocked it out of the park in one area of their life, whether it’s being an entrepreneur, a lawyer or a physician. And they think that somehow because they have this debilitating disease called addiction that they can just tackle it on their own. And because they have been successful in life it doesn’t translate over.

Inman: When I applied for admission to the NC Bar, there was as a question on the application, Have you ever received any counseling? And if you answered, yes, that was a red flag for concern about your moral fitness to be placed in a position of trust. If you have a student who is struggling with mental illness, is that a reason that you would have any hesitancy to sign off on their fitness?

Brinkley: For the NC bar, deans are required to certify that their students are worthy of a position of trust, among other things. If it comes to my attention that a student has had a mental health issue and has sought assistance for that, I would view that very positively with respect to certifying them for licensure into our profession. Anyone who has the courage to seek help, as far as I’m concerned, is already on the road to making the right decisions as a lawyer. That’s a student I want to certify.

Leonard: We work very hard with the board of law examiners to make sure that episodic counseling does not have to be disclosed because it was such a deterrent when I started as dean. Students would not go see a counselor because the bar was very ambivalent about the extent of disclosure you had to make to avoid a character and fitness examination. I say at orientation, ‘Go see a counselor,’ you do not need to report it to the board of bar examiners.

The antidote we started this year is to have a trusted, respected mental health counselor on premises at the law school all the time, who the students know about, who they trust and who they can get to easily. We now have a wonderful counselor. She’s booked day and night. One of the things she tells me is that she’s surprised at how many students are bringing her issues that predate law school – their family trauma, disassociations and their relationship issues.

It’s more than just the anxiety and depression generated by law school. She’s really dealing with very serious issues that these students bring to her. And I think, as we diversified our student body, we increased the profile of folks who come to law school. We’re getting people from lots of different backgrounds. Some of whom had very hard childhoods. For some of these students, this is the first accessible free therapy they’ve ever had.

Lewis: We tried to come up with things to help them be able to socialize. We have Wellness Wednesday where Brett Bowers, our Director of Wellness, is able to connect with the students knowing that they don’t have to have a clinical diagnosis just to talk and chat.

The faculty tries to stay engaged. We have a full-time counselor. She is way overbooked. I think I could clone her twice and she would still be fully booked at all times. I don’t know what those encounters really look like because they are confidential. That’s part of the point. Students must have someone they can come and talk to who they feel has no possible say over the direction of their lives or their careers.

Bowers: We have different outreach programs here so we can go out in front of different audiences and make the services we offer more accessible. It lowers the barriers. That’s one of the big functions of our Wellness Wednesdays. We have a fully accessible space that comes in this co-packaged room of pro-positive psychology to where students say, ‘I want to be a part of that.’

Lewis: We do not just deal with mental health issues, but also provide students with the tools to master time management, financial literacy, and other non-academic issues because we find that a lot of those things really add pressure. You can’t pay your bills because you just spent all your loan check. You can’t manage your time, so you get behind. We think that all impacts wellness. We have a life coach in addition to a counselor that has been helpful getting people to organize their lives. So that seems to take the pressure off students.

Leonard: I think the biggest referral to our counselors comes from the faculty. We have any number of faculty who will immediately say, ‘I don’t think this is an academic problem with my course. I think you’ve got something else going on, that’s more serious. And I think you need to go talk to the counselor.’ If the students are really distraught professors will take a student down to the counselor’s office and sit with them until they make an appointment and can get in to talk with her.

What we’ve tried to do in every way we can think of is to destigmatize counseling, so they can ask for help. If they’re not comfortable seeing somebody within the law school, they can go to our main campus to the counseling center there. If they don’t have time to go to the counseling center, they can do it by video, from their apartment or the law school, or they can go to NC BarCARES or the NC Lawyers Assistance Program. We hope it is just perceived as a routine, part of coming to law school.

Inman: I suggest you invite a lawyer or a judge to come to your law schools to speak to students and say, ‘You know, I had a problem. I had a serious problem and guess what? My life was not over. I got help.’

Leonard: Space has always been really important to me and particularly during a pandemic to the extent that I could get students still at school. So, we looked at every strategy we could come up with to try to make that happen – free bicycles you can check out at the security desk; rows of orange rocking chairs all over the campus; and picnic tables where you can go and just sit. We just built the most fabulous outdoor meeting space you’ve ever seen that is being used all the time. I think that’s been really important; giving folks a venue where they can meet, socialize and blow off steam together.

Lewis: Last year, our dean of external relations planned a 5K. Because it was virtual, students could walk when they wanted to walk, but they received medals. Brett has done some things on Wellness Wednesday. We have massage chairs. There’s hiking and biking when the weather permits. Some of it was led by Brett and some of the faculty and staff. We have a game night I attended. I walk the building so the students can see, I’m not working all the time, I’m modeling that behavior.

Brinkley: What I do is sit down and look at them in the face. And I say, tell me what makes you most blissful in this world. And they’ll say playing my musical instrument, writing creatively, whatever the answer is. I say ‘that is your key for the longer haul. Forget all the marks of success law school sets up – grades, law review, moot court wins, etc. Those things are great, but they’re going to be irrelevant for you very quickly. You need to key into that critical piece of who you are and what you want to give the world. If you do, the world is going to see you for who you uniquely are, and it is going to validate you, whether law school did or not. Because the world needs you way worse than you need it.’

For more information, visit NCBarCARES at ncbar.org, the NC Lawyers Assistance Program at nclap.org or the Welwynn Treatment Center at welwynn.com.

The Dean’s Roundtable was made possible by these sponsors:


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