Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology

79 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2008 Last revised: 5 Feb 2015

Date Written: 2009


A growing body of literature shows that law students exhibit unique signs of psychological distress, including elevated levels of depression, stress, and anxiety. Law students also report significantly higher incidences of alcohol and drug abuse than their peers at other graduate schools. The article assesses the programs that 75 top law schools currently use to combat these alarming trends and finds that they are primarily reactive and that they do not sufficiently address the source or the scope of the problem. This article explores some of the ways in which positive psychology may be uniquely suited to address this student distress. The scientific literature offers a number of methodologies that law schools could utilize to help insulate students from stress and depression. The article then presents the results of an empirical study in which one of these methods was tested in the law school context. The study showed high rates of depression and stress, similar to the results of earlier studies, and shows a very high correlation between stress and depression. The results also confirm that students who find ways to use their top strengths are less likely to suffer from depression and stress and more likely to report satisfaction with life. Encouraging students to utilize their personal strengths may therefore act as a buffer against psychological distress in law school. The article concludes with suggestions for law schools to incorporate these findings and other well established positive psychology principles into a proactive program to benefit their students.

Keywords: law student depression, law student stress, law student anxiety, law student distress, law student addiction, humanistic legal education, humanistic law teaching, law student satisfaction, law student happiness, positive psychology, signature strengths

JEL Classification: I10, I20, K40

Suggested Citation

Peterson, Todd David and Peterson, Elizabeth Waters, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology (2009). IX Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics 357 (2009), GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 448, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 448, Available at SSRN: or

Todd David Peterson (Contact Author)

George Washington University - Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States

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