Depression in law starts young and with law students increasingly reporting distress, it’s in the university system that the issue should first be addressed, a recent study has found. The results of a comprehensive study into depression in law by the Brain and Mind Research Institute, indicate that depression in the legal profession is four times higher than the average population.
The results were presented at the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, established in memory of former UNSW law student Tristan Jepson, who took his own life in 2004. Worryingly, the survey of 2413 lawyers – including 738 law students – found levels of distress indicating depression were particularly high in law students. Almost 40 per cent of students reported distress severe enough to warrant clinical or medical assessment, compared with just 13 per cent in the general population. A third of solicitors surveyed reported being affected by depression, alongside one in five barristers. And although much progress has been made in understanding, treating and preventing depression during the last 10 years, such progress, the study found, has not reached the particularly vulnerable group of those aged 15 to 34.
Much of the problem stems from the fact that young people appear to be turning to friends instead of the health system. “Sadly,” said Professor Ian Hickie, who led the research, “suicide attempts are a major way into the health system at this age.” It’s also a health system that Hickie described as “simply not built for 15-to-34 year olds”, especially given the research that finds mental health problems start well before the age of 25. Other contributing factors include substance abuse, stress in the workplace, a lack of autonomy and a need for social connectedness.
“We desperately need that social connect, but we rely too much on the workplace these days – it’s a big issue,” said Hickie. The Dean of the University of NSW, Faculty of Law, David Dixon, said the need for such connection is something the law school is attempting to address through mentoring programs. From there, he said, there is cause for the profession to step in: “One thing that can lead to depression is the anonymity and a lack of sense of value,” he said.
Gillian Triggs, the Dean of the Law School at the University of Sydney, also raised the question of isolation, particularly for students involved in legal research and study.
“My concern is to get us back into a bit more group teaching,” she said. “Students are now all working 20 hours a week at least, and they are not in class.”
UTS dean of law Jill McKeough suggested that part of the problem rested in the reality of practising law.
“We do know that lawyers have quite low autonomy in the choices they make,” she said.
“We tell our students they can do anything, they can save the world, they get into practice – but, really, it’s not like that.” Hickie said:
“One of the big issues for us is not to lose your life, your job and your career to depression …the disclosure issue in the area you work is critical for going forward.” Hickie said that by putting real faces to people who are coping with depression, and access to those who have returned to work, the legal fraternity can start to address the problem.
- By Angela Priestley
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