RICHMOND — The state agency that oversees qualifications for the Virginia State Bar will no longer ask students to disclose mental health treatment on their applications.
In the spring, law students from across the state organized and sent letters to the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners asking it to eliminate a portion of the application that prompts the disclosure of mental health conditions, saying that students who need mental health counseling aren’t getting it out of fear that they will be denied admission to the state bar.
“It was a barrier to treatment,” said Gray O’Dwyer, a University of Richmond law school alumna who helped lead the effort. “It was reinforcing the stigma that if you seek treatment for any sort of mental health concern, it will come back to haunt you.”
The bar used to ask if applicants had any “condition or impairment (including, but not limited to, a substance or alcohol use disorder, or a mental, emotional, or nervous disorder or condition)” that might impact their ability to be a lawyer. That question has been entirely removed, said Catherine Hill, the board’s secretary-treasurer.
Hill said the bar slightly edited another question, which now asks: “Within the past five (5) years, have you exhibited any conduct or behavior that could call into question your ability to perform any of the obligations and responsibilities of a practicing lawyer in a competent, ethical and professional manner?”
“It is a step forward in the right direction in ensuring that we are building people up and promoting wellness,” said Kurt Lockwood, UR’s Student Bar Association president. “I believe it will reduce the stigma law students have about seeking treatment.”
The changes took effect Jan. 1 and were announced this week at the first Law Student Wellness Summit at the University of Virginia School of Law.
The board had been looking at the questions for several years, Hill said, but decided to make the changes because of a recommendation from a Supreme Court of Virginia committee and “valuable input” from lawyers, judges, law school deans and students.
The students who pressured the bar last year praised the changes.
“Knowing that the students who hope to one day join the Virginia Bar will not have to experience fear of ramifications for disclosing any treatment they sought during law school on their bar applications is a wonderful thing,” said Catherine Woodcock, last year’s Student Bar Association president at Washington & Lee University who now works as a lawyer in Washington. “The more we normalize and encourage sound mental health and wellness, the better we will be as a profession.”
While no applicants were denied a law license based on their responses to the old mental health question, students said the fear of it being part of the decision led students to not seek treatment.
A 2016 American Bar Association survey of 3,300 law school students found that more than one in six screened for depression and nearly one in four screened for anxiety. Forty-two percent of the survey respondents said they needed mental health help.
Of those respondents, only half ended up receiving counseling because of concern over how it would affect their bar admission, academic standing and job prospects, the ABA said.
“This is a national problem and the focus should be on wellness and encouraging people to seek help,” said Alex Sklut, the associate dean of students at the University of Richmond School of Law.
About four in five states still have questions about mental health on bar applications.