03 August 2015


'Who’s Distressed? Not Only Law Students: Psychological Distress Levels in University Students Across Diverse Fields of Study' by Wendy Larcombe, Sue Finch and Rachel Sore in (2015) 37(2) Sydney Law Review 243 comments
Empirical studies consistently find that law students report high levels of psychological distress. But are law students at heightened risk among their university peers? The few available comparative studies suggest that law students may experience higher levels of psychological distress than their counterparts in medical degrees. However, data are scarce that compare the distress levels of students in law with students in non-medical programs. The study reported here addressed that gap by comparing the prevalence of psychological distress among law students and non-law students undertaking diverse academic programs at both undergraduate and graduate levels. The findings show that a significant proportion of students in diverse fields and at all levels of study reported high levels of psychological distress. Moreover, the law students’ odds of reporting severe symptoms of psychological distress were not the highest on any of the measures used. Overall, the findings suggest that law students are not alone among university students in experiencing high levels of psychological distress. We discuss the implications of this finding for current efforts to address student wellbeing in legal education.
The authors state
Empirical studies in the United States and Australia have consistently found that law students experience high levels of psychological distress. While results from the various studies are generally not directly comparable, the consistency in findings seems to indicate that there are common factors in legal education that contribute to student distress, notwithstanding wide variations in teaching practices, learning environments and regulatory frameworks across institutions and countries. Factors ‘typical’ of legal education posited to undermine students’ mental wellbeing include: the competitive academic environment in law schools, exacerbated by normative grading and heavily weighted exams; high-stakes prizes for achievement (narrowly defined) and the shrinking legal job market; an emphasis on analytical, adversarial argumentation at the expense of experiential and value-driven thinking; high student–teacher ratios and traditional or Socratic teaching methods that further preclude students’ formation of meaningful interpersonal relationships with teachers and classmates; a highly constrained curriculum (driven by admission to practice requirements) that limits students’ exploration of established or emerging interests; high workloads, especially reading requirements, coupled with the conceptual challenges involved in learning to ‘think like a lawyer’; and the self-selection into law of certain ‘personality’ types who may tend to be driven, perfectionistic or achievement-oriented.  
In an effort to redress and minimise such stressors, law schools in Australia have introduced a range of initiatives and reforms in recent years. Many of these have been informed by a branch of psychology called ‘Self-Determination Theory’ (SDT), especially as it has been applied to legal education by Kennon Sheldon and Lawrence Krieger in the US. SDT posits that there are ‘basic’, universal psychological needs that must be consistently met — across the different domains of life — to sustain intrinsic motivation and psychological wellbeing. Applied to legal education, SDT-informed research and practice concentrates on students’ needs for relatedness, or meaningful connections with others, competence and autonomy and the ways in which these needs may be supported (or undermined) by conditions and practices in specific learning and institutional environments. Assessment practices, curriculum design, cohort interactions, law school culture, and strategies to build competence in ‘threshold’ discipline skills are often the focus of SDT-informed work in legal education. Insights from Positive Psychology have also been drawn on in more student-centred wellbeing initiatives. These typically aim to build students’ psychological literacy and resilience, self-management and relationship skills, and develop cognitive strategies to manage uncertainty, change and adversity. Such initiatives are likely to have multiple benefits for law students, during and beyond law school. However, their impacts on students’ levels of psychological distress have not been empirically assessed to date. Moreover, the impact of law schools’ efforts to improve student wellbeing will be limited or even undermined if external or environmental causes of law student distress are not also addressed.  
An important, but as yet unanswered, research question is whether it is legal education that is particularly stressful for students. There is some evidence to suggest that university students in general experience high levels of psychological distress. These findings are supported by data from university health and counselling services who report increased demand from students, and also increasing numbers of students experiencing severe mental health difficulties. Some United Kingdom (UK) commentators suggest that the pressures on university students have increased in recent years as a result of reductions in government allowances, widening participation agendas and more limited job prospects for graduates — factors common to other national contexts. Australian research highlights changes in the university ‘student experience’ as students spend less time on university campuses and more time in paid employment. Moreover, when on campus, increases in student intakes and class sizes make it more difficult for contemporary students to feel they are known by university staff members and to make friends in classes. The extent to which such factors may be prompting psychological distress among university students is not yet known.  
It is also unknown whether law students are presently at heightened risk of experiencing psychological distress among their university peers. Most of the research with general university student populations has not collected data on students’ field of study or academic discipline. However, for legal educators, the question of whether law students experience higher rates of psychological distress than students in other academic disciplines is of considerable importance, particularly in guiding work to support student mental wellbeing. In short, knowing whether law students are at increased risk relative to other cohorts of university students can tell us where and how to direct attention and resources. In particular, such knowledge would afford legal educators some insight into the extent to which law-specific curricula or ‘personality’ factors may be contributing to the high levels of distress reported by law students. Similarly, knowledge of relative risk would afford insight into the extent to which study in other disciplines contributes to student distress. Given that many law students in Australia undertake ‘combined’ degrees — combining study in law with another Bachelor program — it is particularly important to know whether efforts to support law student mental wellbeing may be more effective if designed in collaboration across disciplines. In this way, studies of student psychological wellbeing that investigate academic discipline (or field of study) can contribute to evidence-based, good practice in supporting university student mental health.  
Data are scarce that compare the mental wellbeing of students in law with students in other fields of academic study. Moreover, almost all the limited existing research has compared the mental health of medical and law students, on the basis that both programs are academically challenging, entry-to-profession degrees with demanding workloads. Medical educators, like legal educators, have been concerned for decades about the impacts on future practitioners of forms of professional training that appear to produce or trigger very high levels of psychological distress. And, while medical training has long been considered ‘high pressure’, studies comparing medical and law students’ distress levels have often found that the law students report even higher levels of psychological distress (on a range of measures) than their counterparts in medical degrees. While this suggests that law students are exposed to particularly high levels of psychological stress, the assumption that law and medicine are inherently more stressful than other academic courses — professional or general — should not remain untested. Particularly when medical graduates have almost unparalleled job security, they may not be the closest comparator for contemporary law students. Research is needed that investigates whether law students are at heightened risk of experiencing psychological distress when compared with university students studying in different types of academic programs — professional and general. The study reported here addressed that need by investigating the prevalence and severity of symptoms of psychological distress among law students and nonlaw students enrolled in diverse fields of study at both undergraduate (Bachelors) and postgraduate (Masters) levels. The analysis draws on data collected in a study of student wellbeing conducted in 2013 at The University of Melbourne, a large metropolitan university in Victoria, Australia.  As detailed below, more than 4,700 students from six faculties/schools participated in the study by completing an anonymous, online questionnaire that included the DASS-21 — a short version of the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scales. This article reports the DASS results for the law student sample and places those results in the context of published DASS results for other law students and general population samples. The law and non-law students’ results from the study are then compared in terms of the mean DASS scores for each scale and the odds of reporting severe or extremely severe DASS scores.  
Our law students’ DASS scores support earlier research that suggests a substantial proportion of law students experience high levels of psychological distress. However, our comparative analyses indicate that, when law students’ levels of psychological distress are taken as the baseline, there are few statistically significant differences in the results of non-law student cohorts. These findings suggest that law students are not alone among university students in experiencing high levels of psychological distress. Indeed, law students may not be at highest risk among their university peers.  
The article is organised as follows. Part II reviews published research that compares the psychological distress levels of law students with those of other cohorts of university students. Part III outlines the methodology used and the participant sample in the 2013 study. Part IV reports the law students’ DASS results in relation to other law student samples, as well as normative community samples. Part V compares the DASS results of the law students and the non-law students in the 2013 study. Finally, in Part VI we discuss the implications of the reported findings for work currently being undertaken in law schools to better support student mental wellbeing. Suggestions for further research are also offered.