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Counseling Should Not Be the Elephant in the Room

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

It is undeniable that law school is difficult, time consuming, and stressful. From orientation 1L year to the day that the 3Ls walk across the stage for graduation, students are pushed to differentiate themselves in an atmosphere full of smart individuals. However, within the culture of The George Washington University Law School, students are forced to keep their emotions in check and do whatever they need to in order to stay ahead of the curve.

Whether referring to counseling for myself or people I know, I am writing this article to help convey the message to students that counseling is NOT a bad thing! Everyone has issues to deal with and no one should feel ashamed about getting help.

Students should know that help is available to them no matter what is at issue. We have trained ourselves to think that staying up all night reading or studying is the norm, which can have detrimental effects on our emotional and mental stability.

Professor Todd Peterson published an article in the Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics addressing the fact that “anxiety and depression are typically higher among law students than the general population . . . [and] anxiety and depression were not limited to first-year students, as symptom measures were as high or higher for third-year students.”

It is statistics like this that have lead the SBA to unanimously support trying to get office space for the Law School’s designated psychologist, Dr. Seda Sϋmer-Richards. Unfortunately, due to some logistical problems, the Dean’s office cannot currently supply her with an office. However, she is available in the Students Affairs office for students to meet and speak with.

Not only is Dr. Sϋmer-Richards available, the GW Counseling Center is also available either to visit in person or to call twenty-four hours a day. Additionally, students who cannot afford the prices of the GW Counseling Center ($50 per individual session on a sliding scale and $10 per group session) can go to the D.C. Bar Lawyer’s Assistance Program (LAP) where D.C. law students can receive twelve free counseling sessions. LAP offers help with alcoholism, drug abuse, stress, and emotional problems.

Recently, GW has launched, in conjunction with the SBA, the Wellness Wednesday programming lead by SBA Senate member Nick Nikic. Every Wednesday, students can do Mindful Meditation or enjoy the activities put on in the Moot Court room for a few hours. While many students are supportive of this initiative, others write it off as unnecessary. Lawyers inevitably have problems, and as such, these programs are pointless—or so the logic goes. However, this mindset seems to be perpetuating a vicious cycle.

Students are told from 1L Orientation to be careful because lawyers disproportionately suffer from depression and alcoholism. But instead of trying to prevent this, I have heard students openly embrace this. Whether it is by encouraging others to drink while saying “We are going to be lawyers, you know,” or by ignoring mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, or depression because it is “normal,” many students don’t see that substance abuse and depression can harm them. This can lead to what I see as the elephant in the room at law school—emotional distress, self-medication, and substance abuse.

As someone who has worked really hard to stay mentally stable and mentally happy, and who has helped a number of friends deal with life issues bigger than law school and stop self-medicating, I have seen the benefits of dealing with issues.

On the one hand, I hope that those with problems will feel like it is more acceptable to get help and treatment, but on the other hand, for those of you watching friends venture down the wrong path, know that you have options.

Dr. Sϋmer-Richards suggests that anyone worrying about a friend should make sure that they get help for themselves, because worrying about others can take its own emotional toll.

All students should know that there are resources available like the Office of Student Affairs where individuals or groups can speak to any Dean, including Dean DeVigne, who is an amazing listener and helper who genuinely cares for students, and voice their concerns in a confidential environment.

Finally, educate yourself about the resources on and off campus, something Dr. Sϋmer-Richards has taken it as her personal challenge to help students.

If you’ve been reading up until this point, thank you for caring about this issue. If you are wondering about specific results of counseling, I for one am happier after overcoming an unbelievably stressful and depressing year. And my friend has cut her substance abuse by, in her estimate, 95 percent. She admits that she was using substances as a way not to deal with stressors and after participating in sessions though LAP, she is thankful she made the call.