Ten years ago, when Melanie Banka Goela was a student at Osgoode Hall Law School, nobody talked about the stress and pressures associated with being a law student.
Nobody voiced concern over maintaining their reputations, how the grading curve affected them, their worry over hiring practices. Definitely nobody talked about their mental health.
Now, as Osgoode’s Student Success and Wellness Counsellor, Banka Goela talks a lot to law students about these issues. Mental health and wellness — and how the stressors specific to law school can impact that health and wellness — is an important topic these days.
Over the last two years, Banka Goela has been at capacity with her counselling services. She says she is always trying to add to the continuum of well-being resources, and didn’t want students coming to her too late, once they had been suffering from their mental-health issues for a while.
“I found a site in the States that was catering to law students there,” Banka Goela explains. “I pitched it to the other schools and here at Osgoode as a possibility and everybody received that really well and the uptake was really good. It quickly became a collaboration.”
When the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities offered a grant to post-secondary institutions for mental-health resources and put out a call for proposals, Banka Goela decided to go for it. On a very short timeline, Osgoode put together the proposal and law schools at the University of Toronto, Lakehead University, the University of Windsor, University of Ottawa, Queen’s University, and Western University signed on.
The web site is one branch of a larger two-year project, Banka Goela says, with the rest of the initiative focusing on collaborative resources around improving mental health of law students.
“Given that there weren’t law student-specific resources out there, my thought was it would be like a gateway — an early entry to students reading about wellness and mental health issues, hopefully feeling supported around that and encouraged to speak,” she says.
With that, JustBalance was born.
She is also clear that in no way is the initiative trying to privilege law students or set them apart as more important; mental-health issues are equal and in some ways there is a lot of overlap with the general support services available. However, it’s becoming clear through research in North America and Australia, she says, that law students are an at-risk group.
Statistics show heightened mental-health concerns six months to a year after starting law school, when the student’s risk was on par with the general population beforehand.
“Because of that research, because we know there’s something particular about law school putting students at risk and we can start to identify what some of those things are, we felt it’s important to put it in that context of law students,” Banka Goela says.
She says a lot of the tools, supportive messages, and resources will be the same — like social support or counselling or meditation or exercise. But some of the concerns specific to law school, like dealing with the grading curve and methods of evaluation, and the idea of professionalism in the legal field and feeling pressure to maintain a reputation, might be more heightened than in another population.
“We wanted to start getting the conversation going more in this context,” Banka Goela explains.
Tara Hum, a 2L at Lakehead, says the web site is clean looking, well designed, and has more than helped those already having severe issues; it offers an ounce of prevention as well.
“The meditation/relaxation type approach,” she singles out. “Half the time the battle is we stress out too much and preventing that is the best alternative. We need to remember to take a step back, relax, and realize we’ll all be OK in the end.”
It’s nice to have the specific plight of the law student recognized, she says, and she especially thinks it’s great to have community-specific resources for each of the participating law schools.
“Being in law school isn’t easy. The more support the better.”
Toby Samson, a third-year student at Osgoode who had a hand in the design and functionality of JustBalance, believes mental health is something everyone can deal with and shouldn’t only become a concern when you’re stressed out.
With the goal of developing a web site that was calming, simple, and clean in design, Soshal, an Ottawa-based digital consulting and innovation agency, was called in to help.
Samson, along with student co-ordinators at the other law schools and Banka Goela, used surveys done at each school last January to guide the process. Samson says working with a lot of formal and informal processes; the vision that developed was a site that would have a little something for everyone.
“I wanted the site to be something that — no matter what your attitude towards mental health was, even if you’re somebody who thinks it doesn’t matter at all and thinks it’s weak and an excuse, all the way to people who are really critical, have been involved in mental health — we all wanted it to be a space that anyone could feel at home in and I think we accomplished it,” Samson says.
One of the key features of the site is the anonymity it offers. In the privacy of the student’s own home, anytime they need to, they can feel safe perusing the site and checking out what is available to them.
It’s important to realize that things can get better, Samson says, and each person can make it happen. It is a high-pressure environment, she says, but there are things law students can do, like be kind to themselves, change their attitudes, and take more control over the situation.
The web site aims to leave you feeling optimistic, offering resources to relaxation techniques you can start right away, to links to people who you can talk to.
Banka Goela says there are resources and time dedicated to evaluating the site, including monitoring traffic, up until the end of March, when the project’s pilot phase is up. After that, the plan is to get all the representatives from the different schools back together to see if it made a difference and to plan the next stages. This could also mean more surveys, focus groups, and general feedback from the law student population.
Over the time the site is up and running, there will be tweaks and adjustments as well, Banka Goela says. That would include adding content, more blogs and testimonials, comments for a discussion forum, and finding someone to vet resources for students in each of the cities.
“We definitely have work to do to expand and get the word out,” she says.
Samson agrees, saying they want students to use the site, see it as a safe space, and to feel free to share suggestions on how to improve it.