Fighting the stigma

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

As a law clerk in the 30th Circuit Court several years ago, Michael McCue met several lawyers he was convinced were struggling with mental illness. In at least one case, the attorney ended up in jail on drug charges.

Because mental illness typically strikes in young adulthood, McCue wondered if things would have been different had they received treatment while in law school.

The Wayne State University Law School graduate is now a PhD student in Michigan State University's Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program.

And he had no trouble choosing a topic for his dissertation.

"With the great weight that lawyers have in society, and the responsibilities they have, they owe it to themselves to get treatment for mental health issues," he said. "And if we could take the stigma away and allow people to feel they can get help, that would help everybody."

McCue's research focuses on the experiences of law students with mental illness, with the goal of determining how those students are able to navigate successfully through law school.

After reaching out to state and local bar associations across the country for help in recruiting people for the study, 13 people who are being treated for conditions ranging from bipolar disorder to depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder responded.

He interviewed current 2L and 3L students, as well as recently graduated attorneys, who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and are currently receiving treatment.

All participants said their goal was to help others.

Another thing they had in common? Resilience.

"They're not going to be defined by mental illness, whatever that might be," said McCue, who lives in Haslett. "I talked to a couple of students who wanted to be lawyers most of their life, and they weren't going to let anything get in their way."

At the same time, a few of the students modified their goals when they became more aware of their mental health.

"Some of them, instead of going to work in a big firm, realized they'd be better off in small firm where they'd have more control over the amount of work they do and the hours they work," said McCue, who hopes to earn his PhD at the end of the year and eventually work at a law school as a dean or associate dean of student services. "Or instead of doing corporate law, now they find they're better suited to do more research-oriented type of law."

Aware of the stigma still attached to mental illness, McCue assured them that participation in the study was confidential and they would be identified only with a pseudonym.

A few students are very open about their mental illness. But most participants said they're uncomfortable talking about their illness with their peers or faculty because of the stigma.

"They were very, very concerned with how the legal community would see them," he said. "There was a sense of it being a weakness, and of people not wanting to hire someone who has that weakness. And there was a fear that someone on the other side of an issue would exploit that weakness."

Students also expressed concern about disclosing mental health treatment on their bar applications.

While administrators from some of the law schools applauded his work, a handful of others were resistant. And one associate dean said: "I don't want you studying my students while they're studying."

"I was very saddened by that because it's something that affects so many of their law students," he said.

McCue hopes his dissertation helps promote conversation about mental health issues within the legal community.

To contact him, call 517-391-6594.

Published: Mon, Jul 28, 2014

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