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Law schools join forces to support students’ mental health

|Written By Heather Gardiner
Law schools join forces to support students’ mental health
‘As the nature of the student body changes, the supports that are needed shift as well, and so we need to start responding,’ says Melanie Banka Goela.

Ontario law schools are joining forces to support the mental health of their students.

On Oct. 4, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities approved Osgoode Hall Law School’s funding proposal to develop better mental-health resources and support for law students. Osgoode is set to receive $92,606 over the next two years.

Melanie Banka Goela, Osgoode’s student success and wellness counsellor who spearheaded the collaboration with the law schools at the University of Toronto, University of Windsor, University of Ottawa, Western University, and Queen’s University, says it was relatively easy to get the other schools on board.

“We’re all really interested and concerned about gaps in resources around wellness and mental health for our students,” she says.

The grant will help fund things like a web site for all Ontario law students to find information on mental health as well as additional peer-support programs at each school. Banka Goela says creating a provincial network will allow students to gain access to peer support from other law schools and they are working with the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program to help administer this.

She says she hopes the collaboration will signal to students that law schools care about their students’ mental health.

“The larger and foundational piece around [my role] is really to try to bring things together as the person who’s hearing about what our students are going through and trying to see where we can make some broader and more systemic shifts. So this is where the grant comes into play,” she tells 4Students.

By appointing a student success and wellness counsellor last year, second-year Osgoode student Alicia Jaipersaud says it’s one way the law school has demonstrated it’s serious about addressing students’ mental health but there is still more work to do.

“There needs to be more discussion about mental health, which is now changing,” says Jaipersaud, co-president of Osgoode’s Mental Health Law Society and co-chairwoman of the Osgoode Peer Support Centre.

University-wide counsellors are not sufficient, she says, as law students need dedicated counsellors who understand their specific concerns.

“Law school is a very stressful time and mental-health concerns get put on the back burner for most students because there is just so much going on for students to prioritize,” she says.

“One of the recurring concerns is anything stress-related,” she adds. “I think the competitive nature of law school fosters that sense of stress for people and the amount of work that students have to do and getting jobs — there’s a lot of pressure from different avenues of law school that contribute to that kind of stress.”

Banka Goela, who meets with students individually and in groups during her weekly meditation sessions, says students’ concerns are “actually quite diverse.”

“Sometimes there are some stereotypes around what you might expect a student to be coming to see me about,” she says. “The usual stresses that you hear about are job prospects, the on-campus interviews, not getting an articling job, [but] I would say it’s probably more wide-reaching than that. Sometimes it’s around fit or finding a place here at law school; sometimes feeling like they’re not sure whether this is right for them or feeling like they’re on the periphery in some way.”

Jaipersaud admits students have a hard time finding their place at law school. She sees “fit” as a concern within the legal profession as a whole.

“There is a mentality within the legal profession of doing things a certain way, [such as] the traditional law school path of doing things like OCIs that not everybody wants to do but it’s just something that people feel that they have to do,” she explains.

Banka Goela sees diversity-related issues as a growing concern among students.

“We’re increasing access to legal education by trying to make sure we have a more diverse student body, which is amazing, but with that comes the reality of a diverse experience that will occur when you come to law school,” she says.

“As the nature of the student body changes, the supports that are needed shift as well, and so we need to start responding.”

  • Thanks for Writing this Piece!

    Harjot Atwal
    Hello Heather, I just found this article tonight because I was researching Osgoode's "Mental Health Law Society", and just wanted to say this was a great piece. I was inspired, and will write a follow-up piece to my own from Apr. 2013 (http://www.canadianlawyermag.com/4606/Staying-sane-during-exams.html)...especially since I just finished my final law school exams last week, and feel like reflecting.

    From my experiences, at a school like Osgoode (which prides itself on "social justice"), I think issues regarding 'fit' within the legal profession are even more pronounced...mostly because "social justice" intuitively seems inconsistent with seeking a job on Bay Street. When I first started law school in 2010, I wanted to be a corporate lawyer. However, certain events led me to reflect on this decision, and I decided not to do OCI's or follow any sort of "traditional law school path". That's all for now (out of space).

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