Breaking down the barriers

Breaking down the barriers
Photo: Shutterstock
It should come as no surprise that law school is stressful. The same can be said for most other graduate programs, but given the unique pressures law students face, it’s even more important to recognize the needs of those with disabilities, whether they are physical or mental.
The stigma associated with mental illness doesn’t only exist in the legal profession, it permeates society as a whole. According to Health Canada, one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. But since the legal industry is typically viewed as relatively conservative, it can be tough for those who are struggling to reach out for help. The only way to change that is to change attitudes towards mental illness.

Within the last year, there have been two known tragedies in the legal sphere. On Jan. 28, 2012, Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin LLP associate Stephanie Couzin took her own life. There was also the death in August 2011 of Osgoode Hall Law School student Wendy Babcock, who had struggled with addiction and other mental-health issues for most of her life.

Jennifer Aubrey, a third-year Osgoode student who was a friend of Babcock’s, says the law school should have done more to support her. “Osgoode did not provide Wendy with the mental-health support she needed . . . the school is not currently equipped to handle mental-health issues,” she says. “Going for advice lands you with someone telling you to exercise and eat well — clearly not someone who understands the incredible damage caused by a history like Wendy’s.”

Osgoode is working to change this by hiring a counsellor this year to help students with the transition into law school. The counsellor will support students in distress by identifying issues, intervening when necessary, and providing holistic treatment, says Mya Bulwa, Osgoode’s assistant dean, students.

After witnessing her friend’s battle, Aubrey has plenty of suggestions on how law schools can better accommodate students with mental-health issues. First, she says there should be accessible counselling. “By accessible counselling I mean access to trained professionals with no waiting list, at no cost, on campus, all year round. It should be well advertised to students, especially first-year students. The administration and student leadership ought to actively promote this service in an attempt to break down the stigma that exists around needing or asking for help from someone else,” she says.

Secondly, “professors and the administration need to recognize how difficult the transition into law school can be and learn how to respond to this reality appropriately,” she says. For example, she says some of the material in her first-year criminal law course was disturbing but her professor openly discussed this with the class, which made her and her classmates feel more comfortable. She recommends all professors take this approach.

She also suggests that faculty and students improve their outlook towards people with mental-health issues and respond appropriately. This could be achieved by having faculty take training on how to deal with a student who discloses a problem and finding ways to make the student body more accepting of those who are different. She mentions that a few students had bullied Babcock, which really took a toll on her near the end of her life.

Rameysh Karu, a recent graduate of Western University’s Faculty of Law, has had his own personal struggles with mental illness. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD, after his first year of law school. He says the law school was very accommodating and provided him with the academic support he needed, but he didn’t get the same response from the legal profession. He recalls an interview he had with a law firm. “I went to an interview where I mentioned I have ADHD and I was told by the interviewer that I should never disclose that unless I have a very good explanation for how I’ve overcome the condition,” he says.

“When we were being prepped to go to interviews, we were told not to wear our hair in particular ways, not to dress particular ways — very much in terms of how to behave — and I think part of that was about not sticking out in any way,” he tells 4Students. “So a person puts pressure on themselves not to stick out, not to be different, not to be perceived as being different mentally because they risk outing themselves as suffering from some kind of mental-health condition.”

Since then, Karu decided not to pursue articling and to get out of the law altogether. He recently secured a job as a tax analyst at a large Canadian bank. “I wanted to be at a place where they understood that I was going to be different than the rest of their hires. I know I work differently, I process information differently, and I need different support in order to do legal work. I wanted to be in a work environment where that was understood, accepted, and appreciated,” he says.

Dr. David Goldbloom, a senior medical adviser at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, has spoken to several law firms about mental health in the workplace. “When mental illnesses affect people, they erode their ability to function to their best potential — cognitively, emotionally, interpersonally — so that is a huge risk for law firms,” he says. “The bigger issue is what is the culture and climate in law firms around people disclosing, around people getting help, around people taking time off when they need it.”

He seeks a brighter future for law firms. “I think the very fact that law firms now have this on the agenda for continuing education . . . is a sign that the culture is changing,” he says. “These are things that were really never talked about and now they can be the subject of either diversity seminars or health and well-being seminars.” In addition, the Ontario Human Rights Code states that employers have a legal obligation to accommodate mental illness in the workplace.

Mary Wahbi, a managing partner at Basman Smith LLP in Toronto, agrees  that the degree to which the firm is accepting of mental illness depends on its culture. “I think a lot of it really is firm culture; how confident and comfortable are people in working at this place and can they show some vulnerability without thinking that it’s going to affect their careers,” she says.

Basman Smith, which currently has 22 lawyers, tries to maintain an open-door policy so everyone feels comfortable confiding in others at the firm, says Wahbi. Although the firm doesn’t have any articling students at the moment, Wahbi has been a mentor to articling students and young associates in the past. She says an associate who recently went on sick leave was able to talk to a couple of people in management about the issue and everyone has been very understanding.

Doron Gold, a case manager at the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program, says sometimes all people need is someone to talk to, and if lawyers don’t feel comfortable confiding in people at their firm, OLAP offers a free, confidential service to talk to a lawyer. “What they’ll get is somebody who gets what it’s like being in the profession. We’ve been through law school, I talk to law students all the time. They won’t get the judgment that they may expect and they may feel from other colleagues,” he says.

The most common concern he hears from law students is that they feel so alone and guilty for struggling, and they believe they’re the only one feeling this way. “[Law students] start with this sense of needing to be perfect, and the profession doesn’t discourage them from thinking that way because everybody wants a lawyer who can be perfect — even though there’s no such thing. But as a result, they’re afraid to ask for help, they’re afraid to let anyone know that they’re struggling, and they’re ashamed of themselves for feeling like they’re struggling,” says Gold.

Wahbi admits she experienced her own hardships as a young associate. At the time, she talked to lawyers at the firm with whom she had developed close relationships and also sought professional help to effectively manage the really stressful times. “I think what young lawyers need to appreciate is that we’ve all been through all kinds of things,” she says. “At any given firm, there’s going to be a handful of people who have been through whatever that young lawyer’s going through or something similar, so they will get a sympathetic ear.”

Eric Marques, a former Osgoode student and former president of the law school’s Mental Health Law Society, says the law school culture can often be stressful and discouraging. “The competitive nature of the curve grading scale leads to adversarial perspectives and isolation,” he explains. “For many, law school can be the first serious introduction to rejection and shortcomings in extracurricular and academic areas that were once considered strengths.” Students studying away from home or living on campus may also feel isolated. He says law schools should move in a direction that better humanizes legal education.

Gold agrees: “Law school in itself is adversarial and competitive. People don’t want to show any vulnerabilities because vulnerability is viewed as weakness instead of humanity,” he says.

Second-year Queen’s University Faculty of Law student Maria Nunez is doing her part to reduce the stigma associated with mental health. Earlier this year, she founded the Disability and Mental Health Law Club to help raise awareness about law students and lawyers dealing with these issues. “Disabilities and mental-health issues are more common than people are led to believe. Whether they’re obvious or not, they don’t need to be barriers for success. Hopefully that message will help reduce the stigma and make it OK for people to say, ‘Hey, maybe I need a break right now because I’m a little stressed,’” she says. Nunez says she noticed the lack of awareness as soon as she embarked on her legal career. “When I came to law school, it dawned on me that it’s not something that people talk about.”

Some say Queen’s has been at the forefront of mental-health education. Helen Connop has been the manager of Education and Equity Services at Queen’s law school for more than 10 years. She acts as a guidance counsellor, providing counselling and referral services, implementing disability accommodations for students, and co-ordinating the academic assistance program by matching first-year students with high-achieving upper-year students. “I think that seeking out assistance is very much destigmatized in the law school because the program is for anybody and people are encouraged to use it as part of the resources that are available to them,” she says. “So it’s not seen as something you do if you’re struggling or you’re a weak student. Although you may feel initially overwhelmed, so is everybody else.”

Archie Kaiser, a professor at the Dalhousie University Schulich School of Law, teaches two courses on mental disability law. He argues that despite the law school’s efforts to accommodate those with disabilities and mental illnesses, the stigma still exists. “I’m well aware that some of my students do experience mental-health difficulties and do not report them to their professors and to the studies committee as readily as they should in order to receive accommodations,” he says. “So there still is a fairly strong pressure not to face these issues as soon as would be best for people.”

Connop deals with all kinds of concerns from students, but the vast majority relate to anxiety and depression, she says. Part of that anxiety can certainly be attributed to the pressures that law students face. One way to reduce those pressures is to reassess the way students are evaluated, says Osgoode dean Lorne Sossin. An example could be to consider if a course should have an exam worth 100 per cent or whether other components, like group assignments, can be incorporated. “Every time you set up a course or set up a program, you’re sending messages about the values underlying it. So I’d say everything from our pedagogy, to how we grade, to how we structure exams and assessments, to the library, these kinds of student services — all of it to me are pieces of the puzzle,” he says.

Another solution is making students feel comfortable about discussing their problems. “We also need to ensure that all students feel that they can come forward no matter what their problem is and know that it can be addressed,” says Connop. Reaching out for help is often the hardest part, reiterates Kaiser, but once they do, students usually realize they can easily be accommodated. “I think it’s fairly easy to become isolated when you’re experiencing a mental-health crisis and to think that you’re the only one or that you have to sort it out yourself, but once you get beyond that stage it’s normally a positive step,” he says.

Although there are steps that can be taken to reduce law students’ stress, law schools are designed to prepare students for the pressures that lawyers face in the workplace. So it’s imperative that students learn how to handle their stress and mental health early on in their careers in order to have coping mechanisms for the rest of their lives. “There certainly are some elements that are probably always going to be stressful about any professional school environment, especially one that has at its roots some competition for opportunities at the end of the day,” says Sossin. “But that’s not to say we can’t provide more support, be more collegial, be more of a caring community.”

However, it’s not only the law school environment that needs to change, the legal profession must follow suit.

Nunez suspects law students’ reluctance to speak out about their problems emanates from the legal profession. “Law is a prestigious profession where people have high expectations of lawyers, and lawyers have equally high expectations of themselves. It may be difficult to open up and tell people that you have a mental-health issue, or that you need assistance in any way. So it’s something that may not be talked about,” she says.

Gold is of the same mind. “In the legal profession, everyone is appearing fine because everyone is putting on a show. Nobody’s showing any weakness or vulnerability, and therefore everyone seems fine,” he says. Law firms need to be more accepting of the “outliers,” those who don’t fit the typical image of a lawyer, says Karu. “I don’t think the legal field accepts diversity, not necessarily socio or cultural diversity, but just in terms of diversity of personalities as well as other industries do. I think if you’re suffering from a mental condition, it’s a particularly tough industry to enter, where you’re afraid you’re going to be perceived as being different,” he says.

Then there are those who are just not willing to accept that lawyers — just like anyone else — can also be affected by mental illness. “People are constantly shocked that people in the profession are vulnerable, when the more we talk about it the less shocking it would be,” says Gold. But some people in the profession refuse to acknowledge that it even exists. “[OLAP has] offered to come talk at a law association in some part of Ontario and the answer back was, ‘We don’t have those problems here,’ because many in the profession don’t want to admit it, to acknowledge that it’s even an issue,” he says.

The only way to treat mental illness is to create an environment where people are treated equally and encouraged to seek help. For those in the legal community, this needs to start with a dialogue about mental health.

Discussing mental-health issues can help those who are struggling, says Gold. “The fact is it gets dangerous. I’ve had clients kill themselves, I know about other lawyers who’ve killed themselves. It can be very intense and that’s why it’s that important [for people to speak out].”

Everyone experiences stressful times in their lives when they will need help from others and there should be no shame in that, says Connop. “Everybody has to know that at some point in one’s life, you’re probably going to need help and there should be no stigma attached to that. Everybody needs help, everybody should be able to access the help they need.”

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