The State of Law Students’ Mental Health

Ed, a white man with brown hair and a beard, wears a white shirt and grey jacket.By Ed Ergenzinger

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to present a number of talks on mental health topics. When those talks were at law schools, it has been clear that mental health issues are top of mind for many law students these days. As it turns out, this informal observation is consistent with data showing that more and more students are entering law school with significant mental health issues compared to even a short time ago.

In 2014, 15 law schools around the country participated in an ABA-sponsored Survey of Law Student Well-Being (“the 2014 survey”) to examine substance abuse and mental health issues among law students. Given the increased emphasis since that time on law student and lawyer well-being among law schools and legal professionals, the researchers updated their study in 2021 (“the 2021 survey”) to see what, if anything, has changed since 2014. What they found was that, for the most part, things have gotten worse.

Out of 5,400 law student respondents from 39 law schools, 69% reported that they needed help for emotional or mental health problems in the past year. That’s up from 42% in 2014. Those reporting suicidal thoughts during the past year increased from 6% in 2014 to 11% in 2021.

More law students are also arriving at law school with mental health issues. Nearly a third of students reported being diagnosed with depression at some point in their life — up from 18% seven years earlier. Similarly, almost 40% of respondents said they had been diagnosed with anxiety at some point — up from 21% in 2014. In total, over 50% had some type of mental health diagnosis (depression, anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis, personality disorder, and/or substance use disorder) — up from just over 25% in 2014.

Drinking was one area in which there was a positive trend. The percentage of law students who reported drinking enough to get drunk during the past 30 days fell to 44% in the new survey compared to 53% in 2014. While the authors speculate that some of this decrease may be due to the pandemic disrupting opportunities for social drinking, it is notable that there has also been a remarkable and widespread decline in youth drinking in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and most high-income European countries. In the U.S., for example, between 2002 and 2018, the number of adults aged 18 to 22 who abstained from alcohol increased from 20% to 28% for those in college and from about 24% to 30% for those not in school.

Concerns With Seeking Help

Even before getting to law school, many law students are sensitized to think carefully about disclosing information regarding mental health and to be wary of how such disclosure might be perceived by law schools or state boards of law examiners. Law students are then socialized into a hypercompetitive environment in which showing any vulnerability is viewed as weakness. Many students report still hearing rumors about the bar admission process that leave them with the perception that seeking help is likely to delay or prevent their admission to the bar.

I can relate. When I was in law school from 1999 to 2002, I had problems with depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse, but I was too afraid to seek help for fear of what I would have to disclose for bar admission and the impact that disclosure would have. The 2021 survey results showed that, among today’s law students, 44% of law students fear seeking help for a mental health issue because of a potential threat to bar admission, and 60% of law students fear seeking help for a substance abuse issue for the same reason. Other top factors that discourage law students from seeking help include the potential threat to job or academic status, social stigma, financial reasons, concerns about privacy, and the belief that they can handle the problem themselves.

But there are some positive signs. In the 2014 survey, 42% of students felt that their admission to the bar would be delayed or prevented by talking about mental health concerns with a dean of students. The number was 39% when students considered talking to a lawyers’ assistance program (LAP). By 2021, those numbers were down to 36% and 32%, respectively.

Encouraging Law Students to Seek Help When Needed

Law schools have been trying to send a message emphasizing the importance and wisdom of seeking help when needed and not being afraid to disclose that information. The authors of the 2021 survey describe that some law schools host presentations from state LAPs to make students aware of the availability of confidential resources to help them with substance use or mental health issues. In some jurisdictions, representatives from the board of law examiners visit law schools to help students better understand the bar admission process. In fact, three of the law schools with the lowest percentage of respondents indicating that they are better off keeping a problem hidden are in states where the board of law examiners gives presentations to first-year law students emphasizing that getting the help they need while in law school can actually help them in the bar application character and fitness process.

Moving forward, it is important that all law students receive explicit and direct messaging from boards of law examiners about the importance and benefit of seeking help. That includes providing greater transparency about the number of cases in which disclosure of substance use and/or a mental health issue has resulted in the delay or denial of admission. The goal of such transparency is to show that the worry is outsized when compared to the reality.

Finally, questions on bar applications relating to mental health and substance abuse must be reevaluated. Leading up to the 2014 survey, virtually every state required bar applicants to answer invasive questions about their mental health. Since then, there have been successful movements to revise or remove such questions. At the time of this writing, there are 14 states that no longer consider mental health status in evaluating a candidate’s fitness, with the remainder comprising a patchwork of differing approaches.


It is critically important that law students feel safe and supported when it comes to mental health and substance abuse issues. We need to move from an atmosphere of secrecy and fear to an atmosphere that celebrates the idea that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Ed Ergenzinger, JD, PhD, is Chair of the Mental Health Committee of the NCBA’s Intellectual Property Law Section. He is a patent attorney, neuroscientist, adjunct professor, freelance writer, and mental health advocate living with bipolar disorder. He’s a contributor at Psychology Today, Business Insider, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, and The Good Men Project