Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Different Kind of Student Issue

By Lisa McElroy

A few years ago, I had “that” student. The one who constantly has his hand up in class, who asks questions that you answered mere minutes before, who loses his train of thought in the middle of a sentence, leading to uncomfortable silences and eye rolling by other students.

The student was becoming a problem in my class. I tried to remember that first-year students are flooded with so much information that they can’t possibly retain it all, but I was still frustrated. It seemed like this student wasn’t doing a good job of listening, of paying attention, of learning the material - and I was starting to feel like he was detracting from other students’ learning experiences. I began griping to my colleagues that I wished this student would get it together, because he was really starting to annoy me.

Then, one evening, as I was cooking dinner, my email pinged. My student was in the emergency room. He was asking for an extension on an assignment due the next day. He was really, really ill – because the medication he’d been taking for his bipolar disorder had been mismanaged, leading him to feel foggy all of the time and, now, causing him to black out.

My student’s ER visit was a terrible event for him (luckily, his medication was adjusted, and his condition stabilized), but a much-needed wake-up call for me. I had rushed to judge the student as lazy and inattentive, without really considering what might be underlying his issues in the classroom.

I’ve tried to keep my student in mind ever since, and I have worked hard to use the incident to inform my teaching and my relationships with students. For example, on the student questionnaire I distribute to students at the beginning of semester (which, like many such forms, asks for name, contact information, and prior coursework or work experience in the discipline), I ask students whether they have overcome any challenges they’d like to share with me. As I might expect, students interpret this question differently; I’ve had answers ranging from “none” to “I just came out to my family” to “I have a history of eating disorders” to “I have dyslexia” to “I was kidnapped, raped, and left for dead by a serial rapist and testified against him at his trial.” Most commonly, though, I hear that students are struggling in law school, often at a basic emotional and academic level, but also quite often at a level that requires clinical treatment, either because they suffered from mental illness before coming to law school or because they have developed a mental health condition while here.

Of course, we know empirically that law students are more likely to develop anxiety and depression than graduate students in other fields. (If you’re interested in knowing more about the studies that have borne this out, check out Larry Krieger’s work.) Even knowing that our students may be clinically ill, however, we may not be sensitive to their needs. There’s an attitude in a lot of law school communities, or among certain professors, that law school is serious business, that law students need to toughen up, that their mental health issues are a sign of weakness.

I started thinking about this again last week when a colleague at another school remarked that today’s students are the “most medicated in history,” making the point by saying that they are engaged in binge drinking and taking medications for anxiety and depression.

Really? As I responded, binge drinking and mental health conditions are very different things (although binge drinking may be a manifestation of alcoholism). And the implied condemnation in my colleague’s observation really concerned me. Even if students are more likely these days to be taking medications for mental health conditions than they were when we were in law school, isn’t that a good thing? After all, when we were in law school, these medications didn’t exist or were just being introduced. Law students still suffered, but they didn’t have access to pharmaceutical treatment. And more students use insulin or epi-pens today, too – why don’t we comment on that?

One more question, and then I’ll leave the field open for your observations and comments. If we do know that a student has mental health issues (like the student with bi-polar disorder I mentioned at the beginning of this post), we should tell the student to consult with the office that deals with disability services and accommodations for any help he might need. But should we personally follow up? I sent my student a couple of emails as the semester went on, checking in, asking him how he was doing. Was that a violation of his privacy? Should I have done more? I’m not positive that there’s a “right” answer here, but I do think that humanity demanded that I acknowledge that he was experiencing some real difficulties - just as it would have had he had mono or been in a car accident. But is mental health different? Why or why not?


Neil H. Buchanan said...

Excellent post, Lisa! You've identified some very important issues that raise difficult questions.

I can verify that there are plenty of people in our profession who take the "toughen up" attitude about students. It is not merely generational, either. The most extreme statement that I've ever heard -- a colleague who claimed that we need to make law school even more difficult, because he personally found law school too easy -- was from a 40-year-old, not a 70-year-old. There is a never-ending supply of people who are willing to impose harsh judgments on the struggles of others.

In response to your question, I do think that mental health issues are "different" in a way that we professors need to take seriously. That is, if I contact a student to ask how she's recovering from a broken foot (for example), the only possible negative inference from such an email is that the student might think I'm being a bit too friendly (and might be worrying about sexual harassment). That's an important concern, of course, but it will be present in any personalized interaction. If the issue about which I inquire is a mental health issue, however -- even one that the student originally brought to my attention -- there is every reason to worry that the student will feel additional concern that the issue stuck in my mind enough for me to bring it up again.

This is not an argument that we should never follow up, but I do think that we must be aware that mental health issues raise concerns about judgment and condemnation. When I've encountered students with such issues, I've gone through the appropriate channels in the student affairs office. Most law schools have been wise enough to hire good professionals who are trained to follow up with students in need.

I do wish that we could do more personally, but for my purposes, I have reluctantly concluded that this can do more harm than good.

Anonymous said...


You make a good point about making the student even more anxious by bringing up the issue again. I do agree that that might be an artifact of the unfortunate reality that mental health issues are viewed by many as shameful. If we could normalize depression and anxiety as illnesses rather than as weaknesses, perhaps our efforts to reach out might be received differently? I don't know, but I hope that would be the case (and that it will be in the future as we continue working with students).

Neil H. Buchanan said...

I completely agree. This is all more difficult because of the larger social context, in which being mentally ill is viewed as shameful and a matter of personal weakness, rather than a health issue requiring medical intervention. That has changed significantly in the last few decades, but there is still a long way to go.

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