Addressing Mental Health in Law School
As many Canadian law students struggle with mental health issues, some law schools are developing innovative ways to promote student well-being.
A 2012 survey by the Canadian Bar Association found that 58% of lawyers, judges and law students said they had experienced significant stress or burnout, and 48% had experienced anxiety.
“The best place to start teaching people how to manage their mental health and wellbeing is in law school,” says Anna Kline, counselor and student wellbeing manager at the Peter A. Allard School of Law. from the University of British Columbia. Teaching students techniques to improve their well-being is key to preparing them for the legal profession, says Dr. Virginia Torrie, associate dean at the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law. “Providing our students with strategies to deal with things like stress and anxiety can start in law school and then also exist when they’re in practice,” she says.
Kline and Torrie agree that law schools need to address mental health both reactively and proactively.
Reactively, Kline says it’s about being ready to help students in crisis. “When students are in distress, it is extremely important to have someone specialized to deal with them at the time,” she says.
Many Canadian law schools, including UBC, the University of Manitoba and the University of Windsor, have embedded counsellors.
But it’s just as essential to approach wellness proactively, Kline says.
“When you look at progress in mental health and wellbeing, if you can intervene at an earlier stage, recovery is quicker and easier,” she says.
And it can help de-stigmatize mental health issues by empowering students. “If you’re only talking about mental health while you’re in crisis, that’s kind of an implicit stigma that even accompanies the conversation,” says Torrie. “It’s important to think of it as an ongoing practice and something that people talk about because they want to be well.”
“The law school environment can be stressful and anxiety-provoking,” says University of Windsor law student Mark Omenugha. “Promoting student mental health and wellbeing will develop better legal practitioners and ensure that students turn to healthier coping mechanisms. »
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed additional challenges for the mental health of law students.
Ariel Wyse, also a student at Windsor, says she has noticed a significant change in the mental health of her classmates during the pandemic. Some feel exhausted; others feel isolated and disconnected.
“Going to school online can be difficult on its own,” she says. “Combined with the isolation experienced in a global pandemic, students are being required to continue their studies in less than ideal environments. Many students experience stress, anxiety, burnout or other mental health issues.
According to Kline, who has held the position since 2018, “the pandemic has exacerbated any mental health issues students may have had. Hence the growing demand for advice and services.
“However, the silver lining is that mental health discussions are much more normalized than they were before the pandemic,” says Torrie. “It’s a good thing,” she adds.
To help with student well-being, the University of Manitoba hosted a series of lectures on mindfulness, vicarious trauma, and the stigma of mental health issues.
“Because of the stigma, it is reassuring for law students to hear from other lawyers, professors or people working in the legal profession. It makes you feel like it’s a shared experience, and many lawyers struggle with stress and anxiety,” says Torrie. “I want students to take ownership and feel a sense of empowerment that they can be in charge of their mental health and actively work towards mental wellbeing and help equip them with strategies and tools what they can do to get there.”
Kline says UBC has been actively working to equip students with proactive techniques to help with well-being, such as deep breathing to control stress. He has also developed a Lawyer Wellness Mentorship Program involving 30 practicing lawyers who have suffered from anxiety and depression. Mentors are paired with students facing similar challenges. “It’s a really challenging program,” says Kline.
UBC has also launched an emotional intelligence development program for law students to understand the importance of these skills in legal practice. Students can take a quiz to get to know each other better, then complete online exercises to improve their abilities.
At Windsor, Omenugha and Wyse co-chair the Mental Health and Wellbeing Initiative, which works with the faculty’s clinical therapist to promote mental health among their classmates. This includes planning programs on mindfulness and anti-racism.
These wellness initiatives are important, says Torrie. “We can get caught thinking that if you have a problem, you need to see a counsellor. But it’s a ‘one size fits all’ solution,” says Torrie. “There’s more than one way to promote good mental health with things like exercise, getting enough rest. We try to give students a whole toolkit of strategies and approaches.
Carolynne Burkholder-James is an associate with Marcotte Law in Prince George, British Columbia.