Happiness happens: Mental health tips for students


It’s little wonder that students find law school to be stressful.

It is.

Intense classes and extracurricular demands pull students in all different directions, making it much more challenging than undergrad. Now, add in the fact that many of us are living in isolated environments — given the pandemic — and it’s little wonder that mental health issues are a concern today. 

But what if strengthening your mental well-being were as easy as closing your eyes? That’s right, sleep. That’s exactly where mental well-being begins, said Chelsea Baldwin, director of academic success programs at Texas Tech University School of Law.

“You have to be really intentional with how you structure your life to be able to fit it all in,” Baldwin said. “We all have the same 168 hours a week. Most of us need between seven and nine hours of sleep every single night. Start with a foundation of good sleep, and then, with the remaining hours, figure it out.”

She is not alone in promoting the importance of hitting the pillow — not just the books.

“Some people will say I am going to sleep less to study more, and I found that to be the opposite of helpful because then you can’t concentrate,” said Ashley Heidemann, founder of JD Advising. You are reading the same sentence over and over again, and you get stressed out more easily. I know that it’s sometimes hard to sleep eight hours in a row, depending on your schedule, but it’s a good thing to try to make a priority.”

To create more time for your sleep, Baldwin suggests stacking tasks. Yep, that means multitasking. For example, turn on some music and dance while you’re making your lunch. You get the nutrition you need as well as some exercise. 

“It’s just finding these small little stacks to . . . support your well-being that fit within your lifestyle,” she said.

Baldwin has a J.D. as well as a master’s degree in counseling. Several studies have been done on the mental health of law students, and they show some correlation between the law school experience and mental well-being, she said.   

“We know that the individuals who choose to come to law school tend to have mental health and mental illness diagnoses that are better and less pathological than the general population when they come into law school,” Baldwin said. “Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for when they leave. Instead, lawyers tend to . . . have higher rates of pathology across many different forms of mental illness once they leave law school.”

Making matter worse these days, of course, is the effect of COVID-19 on students’ lives. They may be toiling alone in their apartments because many campuses are closed or only allowing limited in-person instruction. 

Baldwin said students should try to remember that they are not alone. Others are facing similar stressors. Remembering that can help one realize that his or her challenges are not unique. 

And students aren’t the only ones under extra stress.

“Keep in mind that the people who are providing the legal education experience to you are also experiencing that same thing from the opposite side of the coin,” Baldwin said. 

There is some good news though. Law school, even in a pandemic, doesn’t have to torpedo your mental health. Baldwin suggests one way to increase well-being is to focus on your physical health. 

“Physical health supports brain health,” she said. “Supporting brain health supports good emotional and cognitive health, and all of that comes together for our aspects of mental wellness and mental health.”

Here are five things you can do to help enhance your well-being: 

  1. Get enough sleep
    This is key to your physical and mental well-being. Baldwin recommends that students with questions about sleep and how much it affects one’s mental health read, “The 24-hour mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives,” by Rosalind Cartwright. “It talks in great detail on how this sleep-to-wakefulness ratio can support your learning and your physical and emotional health,” Baldwin said.
  2. Eat enough (good) calories
    Sure, a pizza is fine now and then, but consider it a treat, not a mainstay. Good nutrients have vitamins and minerals that help support brain function. Also, monitor your weight. Losing or gain too much over a short period could be a sign that you are having trouble coping. 
  3. Exercise
    No, we’re not talking about starting an Olympic regimen. Focus on the importance of simply taking breaks from class. Take a walk. Don’t sit for hours on end listening to lectures and studying. Baldwin suggests that you park farther from your destination or take your trash to the dumpster that’s farthest from your apartment. These are small and subtle techniques that’s won’t take time away from your work but will have lasting impact on your mental wellness. 
  4. Stay social
    Social connections are important for mental health. This is particularly true currently, when so much of your interaction with people is via a computer screen. It’s important to make friends and build a support system. Participate in an extracurricular activity, talk to the librarian, attend office hours, etc. All these small things will make you feel better because we all need human connection. 
  5. Moderate alcohol
    Careful with White Claw and Truly. Alcohol may provide temporary relief from stress, but it also messes with your mental well-being. One study found that lawyers have the highest rate of alcohol abuse among professionals. Don’t start down that path in law school. 

While these tips can be beneficial, there may come a time when you may need more than some shut-eye or a good friend.

How do you know if you need professional help? As with any question you ask in law school, the answer is, “It depends.”. 

For students without any pre-existing mental health issues, the signs can be relatively easy to spot, Baldwin said. Any thoughts of self-harm, for one, is a huge red flag.

But suppose you get sick, and the illness gets progressively worse over a two-to-three-week period. That could be a sign that you are suffering more than just physical illness, she said. 

“Because we internalize our stress, a lot of people carry their stress right here, and then all the sudden they start getting nerve pain and things like that, which then lead to stomach pain and all that kind of stuff,” Baldwin said.

She suggests that combatting stress with meditation and things along that line can help relieve many physical complaints.

Finally, a third indication that it’s time to seek outside help is if you are persistently unhappy for more than a week. That’s going beyond the normal blues. You could be teetering on the edge of a depressive episode. 

“We all have bad days, we have bad seasons, we have bad weeks,” Baldwin said. “If it’s one of those seasons in your life where you have the parade of horribles — someone dies, your dog runs away, the country song scenario — you can, of course, disregard this advice if that’s the case. But if you’re having that down in the dumps feeling for eight solid days without the country song scenario, that is a good time to go ahead and begin the process of seeking outside help.”

The National Jurist magazine recently held a free webinar for law students titled, “How to Succeed in Law School Even During a Pandemic.” 

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