University of Pennsylvania crest. Photo credit: Photo: Bryan Y.W. Shin, via Wikimedia Commons

The student leaders from 13 of the nation’s top law schools have pledged to broaden mental health initiatives on their campuses and to fight the stigma of seeking treatment.

The pledge comes at a time that law schools nationwide have launched initiatives to address students’ mental health struggles, in the wake of several eye-popping studies showing the levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse among both law students and practicing lawyers are far surpassing the general population. Read the pledge here.

“Students left behind are not failures of personal strength. They are testaments to our collective failure to uplift one another and raise the standards of our trade,” states the letter signed by student government presidents from 13 of the so-called T-14 law schools. Those signing the letter come from Yale Law School, Stanford Law School, Harvard Law School, the University of Chicago Law School, Columbia Law School, New York University School of Law, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the University of Michigan Law School, Duke University School of Law, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, Cornell Law School and the University of Texas School of Law.

The student presidents wrote that it’s become an accepted, stereotypical assumption that students will see a toll on their mental health while in law school. But poor health shouldn’t be seen as a necessary byproduct of legal education—it must be treated “as the scourge of the profession that it is.”

We spoke with Chris O’Brien, president of the Council of Student Representatives at Penn Law, who initiated the conversation about the pledge in an online group composed of the student government presidents of the T-14 law schools. Here are his answers, edited for brevity and clarity.

What’s the story behind how some of the student body presidents of the T-14 law schools decided to collaborate on this mental health pledge?

There are many factors that went into this initial conversation, stemming from incidents that all our schools have had in the past of mental health issues—student suicides at both undergraduate schools and the law schools themselves. There have been initiatives taken by the law schools to address these concerns, but they are somewhat slow to respond. Not to fault anyone, but these issues seem to take a back burner to what is more pressing to many schools: their statistics and success rates and job placements and clerkship placements and all these other things. There have been pretty extraordinary things happening in the last few years, but we wanted to stand together in solidarity and say these issues are real and affect our communities. We want the law schools to hold them in the same regard as they hold their employment statistics and LSAT scores.

 Why is this the right time to do this?

More and more has come out in the last few years to show that the prevalence of mental health issues in law school and the legal profession is much higher than people originally knew, especially at big law firms where people work 60 to 80 hours a week. Many of these patterns develop in law school and are continued into the legal profession. We get into a pattern: high pressure, high stakes, anxiety, depression. In law school, we drink a lot, because we enjoy each others’ company, and often we continue to drink in order to combat some of these issues, which is extremely unhealthy. It becomes important as leaders in our law schools to bring attention to these issues now and have our law school communities address them. By the time we are done with law school, a lot of these patterns have been established.

What mental health struggles do law students go through?

The most typical is anxiety and depression. One thing about the top 14 law schools: These are all incredibly high-performing individuals and you don’t get to that level without an incredible amount of pressure placed on you and incredibly high workloads. Many of my classmates, they went to elite private schools, elite undergrad institutions, now they are at elite law schools. These people have dealt with extreme workloads and pressure since they were young teenagers, and probably before that. At a certain point, I think it would help us all to slow down and get some perspective as to what is important. Perhaps what is more important is our mental health—our well-being. So many of the people from these law schools will go on to hold very powerful and important positions. It’s incumbent on us to ensure those future leaders are healthy and happy.

Angela Morris is a freelance reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @AMorrisReports