Banks need panic buttons. Jodie Foster needs a panic room. I only panic when it’s nine in the afternoon. But the thought that American law schools should have a panic button in their career services office didn’t occur to me until I attended the NALP panel on spotting mental health issue in the law school community.

The panel consisted of Hanna Stotland, a career and admissions consultant; Dr. Nada Stotland, Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center; and William Chamberlain, Director of Career Services at DePaul Law School.

I thought I was in for a touchy-feely hour about how it’s wrong to exclude the awkward gunner in the front row from all the reindeer games. Instead it was a sobering medical breakdown of the mental illnesses that afflict 20 percent of law students — and what career services officers can do to help stop people from literally killing themselves, which happens at way more law schools than I realized.

And yeah, your CSO should probably get a panic button installed if it doesn’t have one already….

Let’s take a step back: why are were we even talking about mental health at a giant conference geared around student job prospects? It’s not like there is a Prozac dispenser on Symplicity.

It turns out that career services officers end up being the intake counselors of law school mental health. Unlike college campuses, law schools don’t keep mental health professionals on staff, on campus. Chamberlain argued that this needs to change, but until it does, CSO people need to have at least a basic “counseling” skill set. That’s a little more useful in this context than a constitutional law professor.

The second reason is that a lot of the mental health issues that affect law students don’t really become a “problem” until it’s time to get a job. Dr. Stotland went through all the different “signals” that students might be sending if they have a mental health issue. Some of the symptoms have a lot in common with law student-itis — mania, compulsions, borderline personalities — which makes seeing the signals challenging at times. Dr. Stotland talked about how the high-functioning person can mask a lot of these issues while in law school.

But it’s one thing to have “difficulty recognizing emotions and reactions in others,” which is a sign of Asperger’s syndrome (e.g., you are sitting in the front row gunning as class is ending), and it’s another thing to have the problem and stare unblinkingly at an interviewer for 20 minutes during OCI. So often it’s after striking out on the job market that a person shows up at career services to complain about not getting a job that prompts a CSO officer to say, “Eek, you have crazy eyes!”

Well, they don’t say that. But they have to say something, because people are suffering and dying out there.

While Dr. Stotland was quick to point out that most people suffering from mental illness are not dangerous to themselves or others, Chamberlain asked how many people at the panel had dealt with a suicide on campus while they were at their jobs. A quarter of the room raised their hands! Now while the panel on mental health certainly self-selects for people who are more likely to have actually dealt with this at their school, the amount of hands that went up made me realize that suicides are happening at law schools a lot more often than gets reported.

In fact, there was an extended discussion about what to do if somebody is acutely suicidal and sitting in your office. Again, this wasn’t a talk about “feelings” so much as it was a talk about razor blades and campus security.

If law schools seem woefully unable to provide enough mental health resources now, just know that the situation is likely to get worse in the future. The panelists pointed out that thanks to advances in psychiatric drugs and mental health care in other spheres of life, more and more people will be coming to law school with some sort of mental illness that they’ve overcome. That makes sense: people who might have washed out long before putting together a credible law school application are now being helped by drugs and therapy to overcome all sorts of issues.

That’s a good thing, of course. But they’ll be coming into a situation that kind of prides itself on making people unhappy, a system that rewards some of the very behaviors that medication is supposed to even out, at a school with no kind of mental health support structure in place.

You’d think that the least law schools could do would be to hire a full-time psychologist, but you know how reluctant law schools are to pay for somebody whose only job is to help students instead of publish articles nobody will ever read.

In that context, maybe installing a panic button is truly the least a law school can do. Chamberlain asked how many schools had one, and people from three or four schools raised their hands. They said it was a good way to make sure campus security can get to CSO quickly in case of an emergency.

We all are more worried about school shootings than ever before. Law schools should be worried about campus suicides, and yet very few of them are willing to invest resources in mental health. Maybe a panic button is a minimal, prophylactic security measure schools should be taking.


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