There is now a growing body of empirical evidence confirming that lawyers and law students in Australia, as in the United States (‘US’), experience levels of psychological distress significantly higher than members of the general population and other professions. The landmark 2009 study by the Brain and Mind Research Institute (‘BMRI’), published as ‘Courting the Blues’,was not the first Australian study to investigate this issue, but it was perhaps the first to be heard as an alarm bell by legal professional bodies and law schools. The BMRI study reported that, on an internationally recognised measure, 31 per cent of solicitors, 17 per cent of barristers and 35 per cent of law students recorded elevated levels of psychological distress compared with 13 per cent of the general population. Subsequent studies with law students at the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne have produced very similar findings: both studies report that approximately 30 per cent of participating law students recorded elevated anxiety symptoms and a similar proportion recorded elevated depressive symptoms, compared with 13 per cent of the general population.
As Townes O’Brien and her co-authors have observed, the BMRI report ‘hit Australian legal educators hard’, particularly as the decline in mental health appears to begin in law schools. Students are known to enter law schools with rates of wellbeing no different to, and even higher than, the general population. By the end of the first year of study in law, however, self-reported rates of psychological distress have increased significantly. The negative impact of legal education on first-year law students does not appear to abate across the degree, and distress levels are similar in legal practice, indicating that the nature and quality of the psychological distress experienced by law students and lawyers may be ‘fundamentally similar’. Law school thus appears to be an ideal site to develop and embed prevention and early intervention measures to address mental health difficulties that similarly affect law students and legal practitioners.
The first step to designing effective and sustainable interventions is to better understand what happens to law students’ mental wellbeing in law school and the range of factors associated with high levels of distress. In particular, it is important for law schools to know whether it is legal education per se that triggers or exacerbates law student distress, or whether some interaction of ‘external’ sources of distress and personal characteristics mediates students’ responses to the law school environment. As explained below, Self-Determination Theory (‘SDT’) provides the most promising explanation of the environmental variables contributing to the documented increase in psychological distress experienced by first-year law students. However, more research is needed. Although law student mental wellbeing has been recognised as an issue for some decades in the US, and there is now ample evidence of the prevalence of distress among law students, there has been limited empirical research investigating course-related and institutional factors that may be contributing to high levels of psychological distress among law students. Without an improved understanding of the factors that adversely affect law student mental health, law schools could invest considerable effort in interventions that have little prospect of improving students’ wellbeing.
It was in this context that the present study was designed to empirically investigate factors associated with high levels of psychological distress among a sample of Australian law students. An anonymous online survey was developed to explore a range of course-related variables that have been suggested in the research literature as potentially associated with law student psychological distress. The study also investigated some of the personal tendencies attributed to law students, as well as the stresses associated with the costs of higher education and an increasingly competitive job market. The study was undertaken in 2012 with a sample of law students from Melbourne Law School (‘MLS’), the University of Melbourne. This article reports the findings of that research, including the levels and forms of psychological distress recorded and the factors associated with elevated symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. In doing so, it aims to provide a source of comparative data for subsequent empirical studies examining students’ elevated levels of mental distress in higher education, as well as contributing to an evidence-base for pedagogical development, curriculum reform and mental health intervention planning in law schools.
Three general findings are noteworthy. First, all of the participant-related and course-related variables included in the study showed significant associations with elevated distress symptoms. By contrast, the only demographic variables that showed significant associations with elevated distress related to time commitments (paid work and family care). This strongly indicates that law student distress is mediated by students’ experiences, perceptions and cognitive constructs (as they interact with the law school environment), rather than by demographic variables. Second, different participant-related and course-related variables were found to be associated with the different forms of distress symptoms measured in the study – depression, anxiety and stress. Interventions to support student wellbeing will thus need to address the different forms of distress and their associated factors. Third, different variables were associated with different levels of distress symptoms, indicating that severe and extremely severe levels of distress have distinct triggers or risk associations. This is important information, indicating that programs and interventions tailored for the different forms and levels of distress measured in this study are likely to be most effective.
The article is organised as follows. Part II outlines the available empirical research and explanations of law student distress that informed the present research and Part III details the methods used in the 2012 study conducted at MLS. Results on levels of psychological distress (Part IV) and the few associated demographic factors (Part V) are then reported. Parts VI–VIII report the results of tests investigating associations between the non-demographic variables in the study (participant- and course-related factors) and elevated depressive, anxiety and stress symptoms, respectively. Finally, we discuss the implications of these findings for the planning of mental health initiatives in law schools and offer suggestions for further research (Part IX).