Law Students, Mental Health, and COVID-19

By Parsa Nozzari

            The year 2020 has brought an onslaught of global distress not limited to catastrophic natural disasters, the loss of significant icons, and, of course, a worldwide pandemic in the form of COVID-19.

            As law students, some of us probably find some kind of masochistic release in the daily rigors, anxiety, and general not-so-good-feeling that we experience. Also, because of this transition from an in-person to an online/socially-distanced environment that practically everybody—not just law students—is facing, global stress levels are through the roof and undoubtedly impact mental health.

            Mental health is a touchy subject that, for some reason, almost seems to connote a stigmatized, negative sentiment. To quash that stigma, let’s dispel some of the myths surrounding mental health.

            First, mental health is integral to and inseparable from overall health.[1] Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being—not just the absence of disease or illness.[2] Second, mental health conditions are extremely common. Nearly one in five (19 percent) U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness, one in 24 (4.1 percent) has a serious mental illness, and one in 12 (8.5 percent) has a diagnosable substance use disorder.[3] Third, like many things, mental health falls along a continuum in terms of duration and severity. Some types of mental illness are transient while others are persistent and severe, requiring long-term treatment.[4] Finally, seeking mental health treatment is not a sign that you are incompetent. On the contrary, tending to your mental health and wellness is a display of professional responsibility.[5]

           We cannot ignore the stress we face in our lives, so it behooves us to find healthy ways to cope with it.

           Some unhealthy methods of coping with stress come in the form of compulsive behavior, substance abuse, irrational worry (think: do I have control over the subject? Has it occurred, or am I projecting the worst?), and avoidance. On the other hand, there are many healthy ways to combat stress. Perhaps the most common form of self-help is exercise, which helps relieve tension, improve your mood, and release endorphins.[6] Simply practicing brain positivity—thinking positive, encouraging self-statements—can have a positive effect on one’s mental health.[7] Another way to manage stress and anxiety is by practicing relaxation strategies.

          One strategy is to change up your breathing patterns. Stress often causes us to breathe shallowly, which can actually prolong stress by depleting your oxygen supply and increasing muscle tension.[8] To overcome this, practice monitoring your breathing and noticing when it becomes shallow or rapid. When this happens, take a minute to slow down, get comfortable, and breathe deeply. Begin this process by slowly but forcefully blowing all of the air out of your lungs, deep-down into your belly. This allows you to slowly and effortlessly “refill” your lungs with fresh air. Try breathing in through your nose and focusing on filling the bottom of your lungs first before filling the top. As you breathe in, your abdomen should rise slowly; and as you breathe out, it should fall slowly. Gradually breathe more deeply and more slowly until you reach a comfortable plateau.[9]

           Another technique is to take a “mental vacation” and visualize a peaceful place in your mind. Once you have imagined this fantasy place, take a “sensory inventory” by asking yourself what you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste. Imagining each of these sensations in detail actually helps to create the same peaceful feelings in your body that you’d experience if you were actually there.[10]

            This summer, the American Bar Association prepared a “Mental Health Toolkit” for law students, lawyers, and law school administrators with a myriad of wonderful resources. This year, Law Student Mental Health Day is October 10, 2020, but California Western will be observing it on October 8th and 9th.

[1] Mental health: strengthening our response, World Health Organization (Sept. 25, 2020), https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response

[2] Id.

[3]Ranna Parekh, M.D., M.P.H., What Is Mental Illness?, American Psychiatric Association (Sept. 25, 2020), https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness (note: serious mental illness is a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities).

[4] Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, BA, What is the Mental Health Continuum Model?, Positive Psychology, (Sept. 25, 2020), https://positivepsychology.com/mental-health-continuum-model/#:~:text=The%20mental%20health%20continuum%20is,his%20situation%20improves%20or%20deteriorates.

[5] The Importance of Seeking Mental Health, Lehigh Center, (Sept. 25, 2020), https://www.lehighcenter.com/the-importance-of-seeking-mental-health-treatment/

[6] Mayo Clinic Staff, Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms, (Sept. 25, 2020), https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495

[7] Lou E. Whitaker, M.D., How Does Thinking Positive Thoughts Affect Neuroplasticity?, Meteor Education, (Sept. 25, 2020), https://meteoreducation.com/how-does-thinking-positive-thoughts-affect-neuroplasticity/#:~:text=When%20positive%20thoughts%20are%20generated,stable%20(Scaccia%2C%202017).

[8] ABA Law Student Division & CoLAP, Substance Use and Mental Health Toolkit for Law School Students and Those Who Care About Them, American Bar Association, (Sept. 25, 2020), https://docs.google.com/document/u/0/d/1Q-2gorCHI4HhwBzihKJI4KR79d0e-AdHicUuX5xXKTo/mobilebasic

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

One thought on “Law Students, Mental Health, and COVID-19”

Leave a Reply