On Monday, amid the usual classes and activities at the Yale Law School, law students also participated in events such as silent meditation, a mindfulness session and a webinar on stress management. The events, which were planned as part of the American Bar Association’s Mental Health Awareness Day, are part of a larger monthlong initiative at the Law School to tackle mental health challenges particular to law students.
While the Law School has held Mental Health and Wellness Month every year since 2013, this year’s programming comes after renewed discussion about mental health at the Law School. A spring 2014 survey conducted by the school’s student-run Mental Health Alliance showed that 70 percent of respondents have struggled with mental health problems during their time at the Law School. The survey results — first released in December 2014 — prompted the Law School to implement a number of reforms, and during a Feb. 24 discussion organized by the Mental Health Alliance, attendees evaluated the changes and their impact. Alliance members, students and professors interviewed agreed that the school still has more to do.
“The administration made some progress on addressing policy recommendations, but there is still a lot of work left to do,” said Bethany Hill LAW ’18, a Mental Health Alliance organizer. “One current objective of [the Mental Health Alliance] is to define specific metrics by which to measure success, so that we can concretely assess administrative progress.”
According to the 2014 survey results, law students reported feeling afraid to confide in Law School faculty and staff. Student also struggled to access treatment at Yale Health’s Mental Health & Counseling department and found the Law School administration “unhelpful” in accommodating students who face mental health challenges, the survey showed. As a result, the alliance gave the administration three overarching recommendations: improve access to and quality of mental health care, prioritize programming that reduces stigma and promotes wellness, and develop “demystifying” programming for common sources of stress at the Law School.
In response, administrators have engaged in discussions with Yale Health, urging them especially to increase accessibility to care and allow more flexibility in their insurance plans. Mental Health and Wellness Month and Mental Health Awareness Day also seek to address students’ concerns, aiming to raise awareness of the high incidence of mental illnesses in the legal profession, reduce the stigma attached to mental illness and prompt students to seek help.
Concerns with the accessibility of mental health care are not unique to the Law School, as undergraduate, graduate and professional students alike have long called for MH&C to reform and streamline mental health care at Yale. A Jan. 21 message from Yale Health Director Paul Genecin showed that MH&C increased its clinical staff by 2.5 full-time equivalent employees last fall. But the Mental Health Alliance noted that increased demand has offset the additional capacity at MH&C.
Law School Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove, who oversees the school’s Offices of Student Affairs and Career Development, said she is “pleased” to see the additional staffing, adding that the Law School administration has been working closely with Yale Health to address the wait times that students sometimes face when seeking treatment for mental health. The administration has reached out to MH&C on behalf of students, recommended ways to expedite student appointments in urgent cases, detailed other resources available and informed students about the expected peaks and valleys for wait times throughout the school year, she said.
Another concern detailed in the December 2014 report is more specific to law students: health insurance coverage for mental health treatment, especially during the summer when most law students are away from New Haven. According to Cosgrove, the majority of law students are either on the Yale Health Plan or are covered by their parents’ policies. But the Yale plan does not cover students when they are off campus, except in case of emergencies.
Yale Law School professor Yair Listokin LAW ’05, who contributed to the December 2014 report, said this model does not fit most law students’ needs.
“From my understanding, Law School coverage doesn’t fit well with Yale Health Plan assumptions. Law students spend more time away from New Haven than most graduate students, and many law students are not eligible for parental coverage — unlike many undergrads,” he said. “As a result, the Yale Health Plan is not a good fit for law student health needs.”
The Mental Health Alliance has advocated for an expansion of coverage during breaks. Listokin said the administration has “seriously pursued strategies to close this gap” but said he does not know if the gap has been filled.
Cosgrove added that while the Yale plan provides additional coverage for students who travel for academic reasons, it does not address the needs of law students who are usually off campus for summer jobs.
“We have been working with Yale Health to advocate for more flexibility in summer coverage and they have been exploring options,” she said.
Another source of stress for law students is often the clerkship process, which can be highly competitive and influential in a young lawyer’s career.
Cosgrove called the process a “significant” stress factor, even though she said Yale students do “exceptionally well” on the market. She noted that the process is chaotic, since different judges often hire at different times. In addition, the process has also been moved earlier and puts a disproportionate emphasis on first-year spring grades, she explained.
The Mental Health Alliance has previously recommended that the administration help improve clerkship application structures and processes as part of its mental health programming. While Hill declined to comment on how administrators could help improve the clerkship process, she listed three steps that both students and administrators can take to combat mental health challenges at the Law School in general: advance programming that emphasizes the pervasiveness of mental health problems in the legal profession, integrate mental health awareness initiatives into other existing programming and advocate for the elimination of mental health treatment questions on bar exams and job applications.
Four Law School students interviewed agreed that the administration has made progress on mental health reforms at the Law School, but that the stigma and other challenges attached to mental health persist. All four said they had seen posters for Mental Health and Wellness Month around the school but had not actively participated in any of the events.
Listokin emphasized that mental health problems are just as pervasive at other law schools, and that Yale is not unique in these challenges. Nevertheless, he said Yale Law School has more data and is “trying harder to do something about it.”
Listokin said he suffered from severe depression and anxiety during college and graduate school but thought he was the only one struggling. Over the years, he said, he discovered that he was not alone. Instead, Listokin said there are many treatments available to “ameliorate” these mental health conditions.
“From many conversations with [Law School] students, I get the impression that there are still too many of us who have the same mistaken beliefs about mental health that I did when I was in their shoes,” he said. “To the extent that we can get the message out that mental health problems are very common and treatable, we can hopefully start to chip away at the problem.”