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  • Writer's pictureWenee Yap

Depression in Law Students

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“I had this plan on how I should live my life. How everything worked. In work, I was so organised, I never fucked up. My therapist couldn’t understand how I was really abnormally productive for someone who was so depressed.” – Lisa Pryor, Author/Columnist & law graduate.

As a law student, you have it all. Intelligence, wit, the elusive prestige of a competitive course – let’s face it: you’re even better looking than your average university student. What you study is more socially vital than any other pursuit – except, perhaps, medicine – for law is the foundation of society, making you, as a lawyer-in-training, its moral pillar.

You don’t sleep too much, because you are so very busy and important. After all, who needs sleep when you have No-Doz, V, Red Bull, or a double-shot macchiato? True, the cocktail of stimulants – and, occasionally, other drugs – circulating your system means that sometimes, you need some chemical assistance to sleep or even function. Hardly unusual in your high-achieving social circle, but don’t bring it up over Friday night drinks.

Once you graduate, you can take your pick of careers that others only dream of: the slick-suited, brilliant corporate lawyer posted in Dubai, Tokyo, New York; the dogged but moral defence lawyer; the venerable judge; the human rights champion; the calculating politician. Of course, the competition doesn’t stop there – you will also have hobbies: inter-firm sports, Olympic rowing from your uni or high school days, regular triathlete events, a stint in the Army Reserves, a novel/ film on the side destined to cleansweep every prize, a year as a Fulbright Scholar, MBA studies by night.

Indeed, law students, as a group, seem to be promise and potential dictionary-defined – with a photographed smile and a catchy byline. On paper – postcard perfect.

And we are nerve-wrecked, drink-downing, pill-popping and killing ourselves to keep the show going. After all, with every checkbox of life success ticked off to date, what do you have to be depressed about?

The Great Depression

In a 2008 study conducted by the University of Sydney’s Brain & Mind Research Institute,74.9%of law students stated that they, or someone close to them, had experienced depression. Of these students, 46.9% had personally experienced depression. Disproportionately high levels of depression don’t end at graduation, either. According to the Annual Professions Study 2007, designed by non-profit depression initiative BeyondBlue, lawyers also take top honours in a morbid race to the bottom, named as the most depressed professionals from a selection which included architects, banking and finance workers, insurance brokers, and engineers.

Both studies reveal an unwillingness to seek professional help, with 37.6%of the student participants in the Brain & Mind Institute study saying they wouldnot seek helpfrom any professional – such as a GP, psychiatrist or psychologist – though many did say they would seek help from non-professional sources, such as family, friends, personal trainers, alternative medicine practitioners or members of clergy.Only 8.5% of surveyed students felt that professional help would lead to full recovery.While 62% of law students perceived traditional treatments, such as anti-depressant medication and brief and long-term psychotherapies, as being helpful, 23.4% were also concerned that such treatment might prove harmful, with perhaps unforseen side-effects. By contrast, self-administered treatment – such as becoming more physically active, changing your diet and reading about others with similar conditions or self-help books – was regarded by 77.2% of surveyed students as helpful, with only 3.7% considering these approaches as potentially harmful.

Tristan Jepson & Lisa Pryor

Cases of depression and suicide amongst law students, graduates and lawyers is far from rare, but in the success-driven world of high achievers attracted to law, it is rarely discussed. In my final semester, a close friend and law student came into class unusually quiet. Later, over coffee, he said that a former classmate now studying law at another university had jumped off the Sydney harbour bridge the night before. It wasn’t the first time I had heard this story – law student suicide is a steady, whispered staple of law school. The candidate is always invariably successful, gregarious even, with a good set of marks and no shortage of social events to pepper their weekends. Some are in clerkships or have graduate jobs lined up.

Others, like Lisa Pryor, toil with inimitable drive, rising swiftly through the ranks of their chosen careers – Pryor won the 2006 Human Rights Print Media Award for her story, ‘Australia’s War Crimes Fiasco’, penned as an investigative journalist for SMH.

An American study, Lawyer Distress: alcohol-related problems and other psychological concerns among a sample of practising lawyers, published in the Journal of Law and Health revealed similar levels of depression and mental health issues in the US. Its authors concluded their research paper with a troubling claim: “these symptoms are directly traceable to law study and practice. They are not exhibited when the lawyers enter law school, but emerge shortly thereafter and remain, without significant abatement, well after graduation from law school”.

In the midst of her success, Pryor admits to being depressed for almost half of 2008. “There is nothing good about depression. It is kind of fucking up to have depression…talking about it is admitting failure,” said Pryor.

While Pryor overcame her depression “the old fashioned way – anti-depressants, therapy and just chilling”, Tristan Jepson, a 26 year old law student, was not so fortunate – he took his own life in late 2004. In the wake of his suicide, friends confided in Tristan’s parents that depression was rife amongst their law student friends, who were refusing to seek help. Ever since, Tristan’s parents decided to go “against the norm of pretending that we ought not mention his illness or that he had taken his own life“, establishing the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation to further awareness and research on depression, anxiety and suicide amongst law students and the legal profession.

Our work here aims to honour their courage, their efforts and their son, as well as the lives of anonymous others who have suffered or continue to suffer from depression.

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