There is a lot of talk in the legal profession about a mental health crisis. Many people are trying to raise awareness about this issue and address it by getting people to talk openly about it. Those who encourage openness often assume that these mental health issues exist in large numbers among members of the legal profession.
There is no doubt that many people in the legal profession struggle with negative thoughts, feelings and angst about the future and that this can be a clinical issue where intervention is needed. However, particularly among students and recent graduates, what is thought of as mental illness in the legal profession is not always or even mostly attributable to mental illness, especially when it comes to depression and anxiety.
I was a university student for seven years and throughout this time I thought that I had a tendency toward depression and anxiety. I went to see various doctors about these issues who prescribed various medications. Having been free of what I thought of as depression and anxiety for many years, I cannot help but wonder whether it was a misdiagnosis and if, rather than something like a chemical imbalance in my brain, I was just aware of how bad my circumstances were and had negative thoughts and feelings that were completely natural and reasonable in those circumstances.
For most law students, a stark choice is presented at the outset: 1) try to make sacrifices in your enjoyment of life and accrue massive amounts of debt, 2) try to enjoy your life as a student and accrue even more massive amounts of debt. Both options are bad and come with consequences of negative thoughts and feelings. Into this choice between two bad alternatives must be inserted the knowledge that law school is not a guarantee of wealth or even a guarantee of making the kind of living that justifies the time, effort and expense of law school. All law students recognize this right away, which is precisely what makes law school so competitive and what makes many students so riddled with anxiety.
I hated this system from the beginning of my undergraduate degree until the end of law school. Even though I am more than a decade removed from my days as a student, I still often ask myself what kind of a system this is. Whose idea was it to put the smart kids who listen to their parents and want to become a pillar of society into a situation where they are forced to endure circumstances like this?
As much as I hated my circumstances, things have become much worse for students since I graduated. The thoughts and feelings that students and young lawyers are experiencing are not, in my opinion, due to worsening mental health but rather due to circumstances getting worse. Tuition has gone up, in some cases exponentially, without any relationship to the quality of the education or the economic outcomes of the students. Hundreds of new law students are being added into the hyper-competitive fray each year and the numbers of people becoming lawyers are completely unrelated to jobs in the legal profession and the demand for lawyers.
Added to these deteriorations in circumstances in the last 10 years is the spiraling cost of house prices in many cities, so that students who are already in a bad situation additionally have the knowledge that it will be very difficult and maybe impossible to buy a home, which has been for generations a benchmark of stability and success.
If I am right that the problems many law students and young lawyers face are not related to mental health but rather to circumstances, then it is also important to point out that these circumstances are not a product of natural forces beyond anyone’s control. When administrators at law schools decide to raise tuition by tens of thousands of dollars and add hundreds of students to the class, their decisions are the product of choice. When the law society decides to approve new law schools and not limit foreign-trained students to become practising lawyers, their decisions are the product of choice. The people making these decisions almost invariably did not face the hyper-competitive, debt-addled pressure cooker that is being imposed on the students.
In retrospect, I do not believe I ever had anything like depression or anxiety in a clinical sense, I was just aware of my circumstances and how bad they were. I do not believe that law students today are, for the most part, experiencing a mental health crisis. Law students and young lawyers know that they have been put into bad circumstances and there is nothing they can do about it.
Being sad and anxious is exactly how they should feel.
Ryan Handlarski is a criminal defence lawyer practising in the Toronto area.