by Katelyn Albrecht, Lauren Cotton, Michelle Oberman, Katherine Rabago and Tim Zunich*
Law schools cannot help being alarmed by the growing evidence of mental distress in the legal profession: with more than 28 percent suffering from depression, lawyers’ rates of depression are 3.6 times higher than the general population. These problems don’t simply begin after law school graduation: 42 percent of law students report struggling with emotional or mental health.
Since 2016, Santa Clara University School of Law’s Wellness Task Force has taken aim at these problems. The Task Force began as an organic response to the tragic death of one of its students. In the fall of 2015, students, faculty, and staff gathered for a small memorial, where conversation turned to the high stress of law school, and to the loneliness that accompanies the long hours spent in study.
The grief in the room was palpable, yet so, too, was the comfort we drew from connecting around our vulnerability. As we spoke of law school’s challenges—recalled vividly even by those whose had graduated decades earlier—we realized it would take the strength of our entire community to identify strategies for shifting the culture. And so, comprised of two representatives from each of the law school class years, along with staff and faculty, the Wellness Task Force was born.
Inspired by the Jesuit tenet of Cura Personalis, or “care of the whole person,” the Wellness Task Force began by identifying a broad set of factors that enable us to thrive, which we termed “The 8 Pillars of Wellness.” We created an 8 Pillars website to call attention to existing resources promoting wellbeing across a variety of parameters. The financial pillar, for example, accepts that paying for law school is stressful, and suggests meaningful responses: There are free sessions with a financial literacy educator, who helps manage loan repayment, and tools for managing budgets, like an app that tracks spending.
Next, using the “law school stress calendar” created by Santa Clara Law Dean of Students Susan Erwin, we began creating activities targeting the flashpoints that arise across law students’ careers. Below, we describe three of our many projects.
The “Imposter Syndrome” Survey & Mask-Making Fair
The first stress flashpoint for law students arises by mid-October of the first year, when many become convinced that all their classmates are “getting it,” while they alone are lost. Our October “Imposter Syndrome” events alert faculty and students to this commonplace worry, normalizing it while reminding students of the many ways to get help.
We begin with a short game-based, anonymous survey tool administered in first year criminal law classes using a smartphone app. Led by two student Task Force members, the 1Ls rank their agreement with statements such as, “I feel like everyone gets it but me.” Or, “I’m hesitant to go to office hours because I don’t know how to explain what I don’t understand.” The results speak for themselves—you’re not the only one feeling lost if half of your classmates feel the same way. In closing the Task Force representatives distribute a list of resources, ranging from free counseling to advice from upperclassmen.
Because of its proximity to Halloween, we couple the Imposter survey with a community wide mask-making event, featuring blank paper eye-masks and fun decorations: feathers, sequins, stickers, and markers. Fueled by hot cider and pumpkin “dump cake,” Wellness Task Force members invite others to join them in creating and displaying festive masks, with hand-written descriptions of how we actually feel on the inside.
“Down on your luck? Tell a Duck”
No matter how much students understand the vagaries of the rigid law school curve, grades trigger another stress flashpoint. Low marks implicate issues from class rank to scholarships, not to mention the shame associated with perceived failure. January finds students exhausting themselves with the effort to pretend everything is “fine,” when actually, many are not feeling fine at all.
Stanford University psychologists coined the term “duck syndrome” to describe how students who appear to be floating along peacefully might actually be paddling feverishly to keep afloat. The Wellness Task Force borrowed the concept and created a project that acknowledges what’s happening below the surface. We set out a bucket of small rubber ducks and sharpies, accompanied by a brief description of duck syndrome, and a sign reading: “Down on your luck? Tell a duck!” Students are invited to write a message on the bottom of a duck, and to leave it anywhere in the law school. To balance the negative, an alternative sign is posted next to the ducks, which reads, “Things don’t suck? Tell a duck!”
Students scatter the ducks throughout the law school, where others can pick them up and read messages that range from despair (“I failed Criminal Law”) to joy (“I met my best friend in law school”). The duck table stays out for a week, but the ducks turn up around the school long after the event. Students even report finding them at classmates’ homes. Eventually we collect most of them, soak the messages off, and set them aside for the following year. As with the mask-making event, the ducks remind us that we’re not alone in our struggles.
Nutrition is a vital component of wellness, yet when surveyed, 15 percent of Santa Clara law students report skipping meals in order to afford law school. The Wellness Task Force wanted to remedy this problem without intensifying the shame often associated with food insecurity. Recalling the old folktale, Stone Soup, the 2016 Wellness Task Force organized a weekly “crock pot” meal, meeting early on Thursday mornings to assemble chili and soups from basic ingredients donated by faculty and staff. The savory aroma proved to be an enticement for many to gather and visit over lunch.
By fall, 2016, Stone Soup’s success in calling attention to food insecurity gave rise to a new student organization, SCU Law Eats. Through fundraising and in-kind donations, SCU Law Eats now provides breakfast and lunch, Monday through Thursday. The complimentary food helps offset hunger, and also forges a vibrant sense of community.
Unlike more packaged “wellness programs,” Santa Clara Law’s Wellness Task Force harnesses our communities’ resources to effectuate change. It is too soon to take the measure of our success in changing the overall climate on campus, but not too soon to reflect upon the lessons we have learned.
- Wellness is a practice, not a status.
By acknowledging the reality that most of us struggle from time to time, we send a community-wide message that we care, while at the same time sharing coping strategies. The hallmark of our programming is that it features the opportunity for connection, which in itself helps offset law school’s struggles.
Santa Clara Law Director of Student Life Jill Klees shares:
“Together with the Wellness Task Force, we have been able to quickly roll-out wellness initiatives.When I hear the bounce of a ping-pong ball and laughter, taste the comforting yumminess of freshly made chili, see a rubber duck up on a shelf with a quote on the bottom that reads, “you can do it!” , when students tell me that making a balloon stress ball or designing a silly mask with glitter and markers made them smile and stopped their anxious thoughts for a short period of time and shifted their thinking from logic to creativity, I feel proud to be part of a community that makes wellness a priority one duck, mask, or stress ball at a time.”
- Student leaders are vital to promoting wellness.
Shame and stigma keep us from sharing our challenges, further isolating those who are struggling the most. For this reason, among others, the Wellness Task Force’s student representatives are vital to the success of our mission. We rely on them to reflect on their own experiences, as well as to surface concerns they hear from their peers.
Katelyn Albrecht, a 3L, offers this perspective:
“I have been a mental health advocate for years and, after experiencing what I would define as a particularly terrible 1L year, I knew I needed to become involved in the Wellness Task Force. Some choose to emphasize their bad experiences to justify their negative feelings, but I choose to be the kind of person that tries to change what prompted the bad feelings.”
- Be willing to fail.
Our reliance on brainstorming and creative programming means that, on occasion, we are disappointed. That said, as 3L Tim Zunich notes, our willingness to fail is part of the strength of our program:
“Not all of our programs have been successful. The activities are based on our perceptions of the school’s current needs and as a group, we are not afraid to admit when something flopped. Last year’s town hall was supported by amazing faculty participation but few students attended. The town hall style had worked to help students cope with a major tragedy, but it clearly was not the best forum for addressing the difficulties of daily life in law school.”
- Embrace a growth-mindset approach to wellness.
By normalizing law school’s challenges, we invite law students to take charge of their response to stress by adopting a growth mindset, and developing healthy habits that will serve them for years. One of our recent graduates, Amanda Lee JD ‘18, a founding member of the Wellness Task Force, offered these thoughts on how her wellness work in law school equipped her for practice:
“Wellness is the act of listening to one’s self, consciously stepping away from challenging legal work to re-energize the mind and body, and doing so with the understanding that it will benefit one’s practice in the long term.”
*The authors are members of Santa Clara University School of Law’s Wellness Task Force (2017-2019): Santa Clara Law Professor Michelle Oberman, Kateyln Albrecht 2019L, Tim Zunich 2019L, Lauren Cotton 2020L, and Katherine Rabago 2020L. Many thanks to Jill Klees, Director of Student Life and fellow Wellness Task Force member.