We Need To Talk About Our Mental Health
By Talia Ralph, Healthy Legal Minds | Ju(ri)stes en santé
One of the most debilitating elements of prolonged stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges is that they reside within you and change your worldview. As jurists-to-be, we seriously depend on our minds for the work we do, and we value and respect the intellect of our peers. But if we’re depressed, anxious, living with a chronic mental illness, or just in a weird mood, we convince ourselves that we’re the only one in the world who feels this way. We become sure that everyone but us is doing great, and that we’ll be ostracized, judged, and penalized for admitting a weakness that is, to most people, invisible.
But the truth is that most of us experience these feelings. Healthy Legal Minds surveyed 362 of you over the course of the winter, and the Institut de recherche en santé psychologique des travailleurs (IRSPT) shaped the study and analyzed the results. While shocking, they should hardly come as a surprise to us law students. Our hope in sharing these results is that they lay to rest the lonely self-talk that goes hand-in-hand with mental health struggles. If anything, these results should drive us all to speak more openly about the issue of mental health at our faculty, and they inspire us to build solutions to keep the McGill law faculty healthy.
The shortest possible summary of the report is that being at McGill Law is harmful to our mental health. Two-thirds of our students have experienced psychological health struggles while in law school, and at much higher rates than before entering the program. Half of the respondents credit the McGill Law program with negatively impacting their emotional and psychological well-being. The main factors that cause this stress on our minds will probably be familiar to you: a competitive environment; an imposed “B” average; little to no flexibility for part-time study, either to take care of our mental health or for those of us who work in order to support ourselves or our families; confusion about grading criteria and expectations coupled with a lack of feedback on our work; and insufficient access to mental health services.
One of the most devastating findings of the survey was that almost 20% of survey respondents have thought about ending their life at least once in the past 3 months. We’ve all read the horrific stories about suicides among law students across North America; most of us probably caught the devastating New York Times article this summer about the death of a high-profile Silicon Valley lawyer whose drug abuse and deteriorating mental health led him to take his own life. It was the most e-mailed New York Times story the week it was published—clearly, it resonated. These studies and stories make it clear that it’s not just law school that is hurting our mental health, and even killing us: it’s our profession as a whole. Lawyers experience depression, anxiety, and substance abuse at higher rates than other professions: a study by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that lawyers experience problem drinking two to three times more often than other highly educated professionals, including physicians, and that the rates of depression for lawyers is about three times higher than the general U.S. population.
I have lost two family members to suicide, and I am part of our survey’s statistics. My first year at McGill law was, aside from those personal losses, the most challenging experience I have ever faced in my life. It pushed me to return to regular therapy and to start taking anxiety medication, something I’d avoided for years because I was able to maintain my mental health with exercise, meditation, cooking, and enough sleep. However, these struggles also brought me closer to my peers—many of whom confided in me about their own mental health struggles and anxieties as a result of studying the law.
However, though 78% of us think it’s important to talk openly about our struggles with mental health, 52.8% of us don’t think our colleagues expect us to do so. Worse, 45.7% of us don’t talk openly about our struggles, many out of a fear that because their colleagues will be a part of their future professional network, they can’t be honest. Excuse my language, but that is total bullshit. If we don’t address our collective health as students, it will only get worse once we enter the legal profession. And as people who are in a profession dedicated to helping others, solving complex problems, and fighting for what is right, we simply can’t stand for not putting this problem, and ourselves, front and center.
As an organization, Healthy Legal Minds is a collective of jurists and law students who recognize the importance of personal health to the responsible practice of law. In the law school context, this means advocating for systemic changes to address root causes while also providing services and outlets for students to foster their own self-care habits. Check out the website, healthylegalminds.org, for details on this year’s initiatives and ways to get involved. HLM is committed to getting more available services for law students at the Faculty, and will be building a space in the Atrium this Fall where you can find mental health resources, meditate, or just take a minute to cry, nap, or get away for a moment. We’d like to create a mandatory first-year class that will give 1Ls some of the skills they need not just to master their coursework, but the self-care required to really excel. We’re raising awareness at the administrative level about these issues, and working with Dean Leckey, faculty leadership, and professors to increase their awareness of these issues and equip students with the resources they so clearly need.
In short, HLM will continue to work for students—but we can’t do it alone. We ask that you join us in this effort. Take the first step for yourself and set up a counselling appointment or schedule in some self-care. Commit to not cancelling it. Talk to a peer about how you’re feeling. Ask them if they’re doing alright, and mean it. Check in with a 1L who might be walking around campus as completely overwhelmed and terrified and nauseous as you once were. Join Healthy Legal Minds at our next event, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts on how we can chip away at the stigma surrounding mental health at our Faculty. Because, after all, it is ours. The sooner we realize we’re in this together, the sooner law students can stop surviving law school and start thriving in it.
SIDEBAR: MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES ON CAMPUS
Our student health care plans give you 80% off the cost of mental health services off campus, and offers a network called Empower Me that will help you find a therapist who meets your needs. As someone who has been in therapy before, I know how challenging it can be to make time for yourself in this way, and to find someone who makes you feel comfortable. I can also attest to the fact that it has saved me from myself more than once.