Are we doing enough to optimize the student body’s mental health?

I was recently struck by a bold Facebook status from a fellow 3L, Stacey Merrigan. On Oct. 14, she wrote:
Some of my Facebook friends may already know that I describe myself as a person who suffers from anxiety. I feel lucky that I am usually able to function, and that it is not usually so severe that it keeps me from accomplishing my goals.Today I experienced something that I have been fearing for the last two years. I had an anxiety attack. In class. My chest tightened, my breathing was rapid and shallow, my heart started racing. I was terrified that someone would notice — I sit in the front row, after all.I spent most of the three hours in class half-listening, trying to appear like my normal talkative self, but all the while keeping up a mantra in my head talking myself through my coping mechanisms, and also reaching out to my husband to support me by text.We don’t talk about mental health issues at law school enough, in terms of lived experience.
I spent three hours pretending I was not experiencing any of those symptoms, in part because I felt the stigma of the label I would wear if I left.So I decided that I wouldn’t let stigma win. I’m a law student (and a damn good one), and will soon(ish) be a lawyer, who happens to have anxiety. It doesn’t and won’t make me less effective. In fact, it might even give me a perspective that others don’t have. I choose not to let it define me, but also to help shape the way others might see this particular mental health issue.

Knowing Merrigan as I do, the statement was especially profound. My perception of those who contend with mental health disorders expanded. Let me explain. Merrigan is no lightweight — in and out of the classroom. She commutes weekly to school from Sackville, N.B., where her home life is busy. She balances school with family commitments as a wife and mother of two.

She’s also brainy. At last year’s student awards night, Merrigan made repeated trips to the stage to collect awards like she was a James Cameron film. She was one of a handful of students to resurrect the LGBT student society with me in the fall of 2013. An out and proud bisexual, she offers a valuable perspective to OUTLaw.

When the going got tough and the University of New Brunswick law student society opted to step away from the fight against Trinity Western University, she was among the select few to stand alongside us and get tough right back.

And one more thing: Most readers know I am a fan of figure skating. Her name rhymes with Nancy Kerrigan, so there’s that. She’s a friend and, needless to say, I am a fan. I would never have guessed that she suffered from anxiety.

Returning to Merrigan’s admission, do we talk about, and furthermore address mental health sufficiently in law schools? And by “we” I mean all of us: students, professors, non-teaching law school staff, lawyers, and others. There has been some commendable movement on the mental health front in law schools across Canada.

Osgoode Hall Law School has been especially active in this space since the 2011 suicide of law student Wendy Babcock.

“Wendy’s death was a terrible tragedy and, of course, any such tragedy is complicated and impossible to thoughtfully and respectively ascribe to one or another issue or angle,” says Benjamin Berger, associate dean, students. “Over the past number of years, Osgoode has engaged both internally and in the larger community of law schools in a series of mental health and wellness initiatives designed to recognize and respond more effectively to the truth that mental health is an issue affecting law students, and one that demands the concerted attention and investment of the whole community.”

Those initiatives include peer support, mental health awareness week, and participation in joint law school initiatives such as the Just Balance web site.

But the crown jewel of this program is a dedicated law student counsellor, Ellen Schlesinger. The staff support has helped trigger a protocol for professors when students exhibit signs of mental or emotional distress.

“We have a practice that we follow,” explains Mya Rimon, Osgoode’s assistant dean, students. “Depending on the level of crisis, there will certainly be instances where someone will present to me or another staff member, and if they’re at a moment of crisis, we will go down the hall — literally just down the hall — to our student success and wellness counsellor . . . and see if she can see the person right away.”

Student uptake on Schlesinger’s services has been brisk.

“Her dance card is pretty full,” Rimon says.

While she admits there is still work to be done, Rimon is struck by the distance law schools have come since her graduation in 1995.

“I, along with several friends, especially in first year, had real challenges with new expectations, early feelings of inadequacy, and the stress,” she remembers. “But back then, we didn’t have anyone, not within the four walls of the law school, to go to talk about it.

“We were forced to figure out ways to self-help, but there wasn’t an awareness . . . and far more stigma. You didn’t want to talk about it and it wasn’t OK. I certainly think if there were resources like this then, I know I would have reached out.”

The University of Saskatchewan’s law school has woven mental health directly into the curriculum.

“I think it is overall a good response,” professor Marilyn Poitras says of the student reaction to her law and happiness course.

Poitras saw the makings of a class when she observed high rates of depression, suicide, and divorce in the legal profession.

“I know about stress and pressure and alcoholism and family violence and suicide rates among the people who run our justice system and I wondered what we would learn if we start talking about it.”

And word to the wise: Don’t suggest to Poitras that her course is not black letter.

“In terms of the profession, it actually is black letter law,” she defends. “Read the cases of any law society disciplinary committee and find out about the lawyer’s life and why he or she got into trouble. Mental health meets law right there in our own cases.”

Poitras says some students still regard the course as Mickey Mouse, signalling work still needs to be done to sensitize people to this subject. She also notes the class fills every time it is offered and carries a waiting list.

I am impressed by the work of Berger, Rimon, and Poitras to support the mental health of law students like Merrigan and others who, unlike Merrigan, are understandably silent on their internal turmoil.

I am also going to offer a few suggestions based on my experience in five semesters of law school to ease the pressure that pushes so many students to a breaking point where they have to turn to resources to cope:

1.    Send all professors to sensitivity training to be mindful of their conduct in front of and what they say to students. Upon confession to a professor last year that I struggled with the competitive dynamic of law school, the professor’s response to me was: “Tough. Get used to it.” Harsh words that I will not soon forget. Law school a la The Paper Chase is outdated educating that does more harm than good.

2.    One of Canada’s law school deans needs to make the bold step of ditching the ranking of law school students. Your school will be heralded by students keen to learn to work collaboratively rather than against one another.

3.    Where possible, faculties should meet collectively and schedule graded elements of their courses, whether a test, assignment, or essay. Some co-ordination will help avoid bottlenecks for students.

4.    Professors (and I mean this with all due respect): get real with your syllabi. Drowning in reading forces students to turn to unreliable online case briefs or create reading pools in response to the feeling of inadequacy at not keeping up.

5.    Fellow students: Be kind to and mindful of others. Don’t add to the turmoil that law school already is!

I can’t help but question whether the reactive measures to mental health issues such as those summarized in this column are sufficient. It seems to me that until we address the causes of mental health crises by throwing up the hood and tinkering with the caustic features of law school we will not fully realize a student body of optimal mental health.

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