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Mental Health and Law Students: Addressing the Issue One Step at a Time

We do know that studying law is a stressful process: demanding curriculum, competitive environment, exacting professors. The world of Law schools is hard-core for many students. In fact, research shows that worldwide, law students are among the more prompt to psychological distress and mental health difficulties across all faculties’ students. In line with initiatives taken by Ontario law schools to support students’ mental wellbeing, the Civil Law Section at University of Ottawa started this year a pilot project to tackle first year students’ stress and anxiety. This project was also motivated by the fact that our students have a high rate of related accommodation measures for their exams. This surely tells us something about the challenges our students face during their law studies.

The University of Ottawa SASS leading team (Student Academic Success Service) first lent a hand in order to assess our needs and work collaboratively to implement services that would respond to them. To identify those needs, we held a focus group with a dozen students to better understand the causes of their stress. One of the conclusions was that the students’ level of stress often seems to be associated with 1) their lack of knowledge of or familiarity with their new environment – most of our students just being out of college – and 2) their lack of organization in terms of time and stress management. From this observation, and with the help and advice of the SASS team, we identified a series of steps to take for reducing our students’ stress.

The first step was the creation of a Mentoring Center for our students. We selected three mentors based on the excellence of their academic record, but also their interpersonal skills, empathy and motivational abilities. These three mentors were trained to help students achieve academic success with different methods that are detached from the subject taught in the different courses: learning strategies and study techniques, personal motivation, effective use of time and tools to manage stress, amongst others. The meetings between mentor and student is on a one-on-one basis, and every intervention is anonymously registered in a logbook. This enables us to assess the level of activity of the Center and the type on interventions done by the mentors. It will eventually allow us to target topics that should be addressed in workshops, anticipate more stressful periods and prepare activities to prevent those “stress peaks”.

Taking a second step, we set up a series of three workshops designed specifically for first year students, and addressing needs that were previously identified by the focus group. At every workshop, we encouraged the participation of professors. We held a first workshop at the beginning of September that we called “University 101”. The objective of this workshop was to familiarize our new students with the modes of operation and the peculiarities of the university environment. What are your professors doing when they are not teaching you? What is academic research? What are the values of autonomy, responsibility, respect and integrity that are expected from you now that you are in law school? What are the resources available here at the Section or more broadly at the University to help you reach your academic goals? This is a sample of the questions we addressed during this first workshop.

A second workshop took place in October and meant to tackle time management issues. This workshop was given by an expert from the SASS, and invited the students to do several exercises to identify how they spend their time, what is time-consuming and could be dropped or decreased, to prioritize their activities and not forget to take time for activities essential for their wellbeing – social time, sports, family. The workshop also provided them with many useful tools to use, for instance time management apps that could help them keep track of their activities and remind them when it is time to switch from an activity to another.

Our final workshop for this fall semester took place on November 14th, and dealt with stress management. The timing for this final workshop was no coincidence: the students have faced their first midterm exams a few weeks ago and experienced their own reactions to this stressful moment, they have just received their grades for those exams, and are starting to prepare for the final exams that will take place in less than one month. Given by a professional counsellor from the SASS, the workshop focused on what exactly is stress, why it is essential that we feel stress, and how our body, mind and emotions react to different degrees of stress. The workshop also led students to question their personal sources of stress, and identify strategies they can adopt to reduce the negative impacts of stress on their lives.

One small step at a time, we hope to reduce stress and anxiety among our students, and make their experience of studying law more positive in terms of mental health and psychological wellbeing. Beyond law schools, mental health issues in the legal profession is something that is increasingly addressed: “But research suggests that [lawyers] are at much higher risk of depression, anxiety and substance abuse issues than people in the broader population — and may even be more susceptible than those in other high-stress professions, such as medicine.” We believe that addressing this issue must begin as soon as students set foot in a law school. By offering our first year students methods to manage adequately their stress, we hope to give them tools that will serve them throughout their careers.

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