Column

Students Face Acute Mental Health Needs During Pandemic Learning

A SLAW Commentary by: Richard Jochelson, David Ireland, Melanie Murchison, Tan Ciyilepe, and Silas Koulak

The Pandemic has posed a number of new challenges for law schools in Canada and we are faced with new questions which will need to be settled in the near future. Immediate issues include: what will the acceptable quantum of online course delivery be after the Pandemic according to the National Requirement set by the Canadian Federation of Law Societies; will student and administrative meetings continue to be held via videoconference; should support staff, students or Faculty commit to some form of hybrid work environment; should special events and talks be held in theatres and moot courts going forward? While traversing a coherent answer to these questions will be a necessary exercise for all law schools to undertake, we are also mindful that there are lessons about the student experience that should inform the discussions we engage in and the decisions we ultimately make as law school educators. The mental health of law students was already top of mind for most law schools, but undoubtedly Pandemic learning has exacerbated the needs of law students for mental health supports.

In a recent study that we conducted, to be published in the Canadian Journal of Comparative and Contemporary Law, we surveyed 422 law students across Canada (we refer readers to the forthcoming piece for detailed statistical analysis, ethical clearances, and related details). We asked them numerous questions about their online learning experiences, law school during Covid, modes of instruction, and their emotional wellbeing. We heard mostly from our home school at Robson Hall, University of Manitoba, but we did hear from respondents across the nation.

In that article, we asked 88 survey questions and we did not report extensively on our findings regarding student emotional wellbeing, mainly because the article was focused on issues of pedagogical analysis. Nonetheless we did uncover a number of themes that emerged from the qualitative data that we thought would be informative to share in this short commentary. Below we share a series of reflections from our participants that captured the struggles that law students experienced and are experiencing during Pandemic law school learning. Some comments were isolated reflections, but the severity of the concerns raised merit their iteration in this commentary.

Degradation of Mental Health and Resources

Degrading mental health was by far the biggest concern for students expressed in response to the question: “Is there anything else about accessibility, mental health, or other issues that concern you about the move to online learning?” Eleven students requested more compassion from faculty, including a “broader understanding of the impact online learning may have on marginalized students… administrations are still mostly focused on their own liability and the risks to academic integrity, rather than caring for their students who may be in crisis or falling behind.”

Another student stated “I hear the narrative a lot that the college is “in this” with the students. I call bullshit.” Other students mentioned the challenges of paying for additional computers, internet and online tools as a stressor. Students were also concerned about keeping their camera on, and Zoom burnout. Others thought online learning would create problems for marginalized students (especially those with ADHD).

Daily Struggles and Self Harm

Many of our respondents focused on issues of their own mental wellbeing. One student described a “daily struggle” to keep up their mental health, calling it “completely unfair to ask us to continue the typical law school structure”. Forty-eight students in total expressed concern related to this theme, with one calling it “demeaning for the spirit”, and several mentioning how challenging it was to do this work without built in peer supports. Another student stated, “I never thought about killing myself until I went through online law school, the disconnection from other people is overwhelming.” Another response read simply “I’ve never felt so alone.”

One student reflected “online learning has essentially taken a battering ram to my already mediocre mental health. I have drastically increased my prescribed dosage of medication for my chronic depression and generalized anxiety, both diagnosed in undergrad but relatively manageable until this year, where they have completely overwhelmed me. [I] contemplated suicide to escape law school last semester, where I felt hopelessly behind and overwhelmed and incompetent in all classes. Didn’t kill myself, but barely scraped through with passing grades. I still feel that same way in this new semester, with new classes.”

How Can Law Schools Help

We also asked how can law school Faculty help with mental health needs during online semesters? Students responded that their mental health needs would be improved if faculty could: a) reduce the amount of work they are giving students (38 responses); b) show compassion at an individual level (15 responses); c) be generous with extensions and exceptions (15 responses); and d) avoid final exams (21 responses).

Thirty-eight of the responses had to do with students being overworked:

“Cut the readings in half. I would be way better off and even learn and retain more if I had half the amount of readings.”

“Reduce the load of readings. Professors are exaggerating, seriously. I can have as much as 400 pages of readings for a single week even though the course is online, which ruins my mental health. It is not healthy to spend days on a computer and not having the time to do anything else.”

Another student described the workload as “absurd”.

Students also wanted faculty to be generous with extensions and exceptions, noting that:

“if someone needs more time they shouldn’t be a) penalized and/or b) made to prove or provide an “acceptable” reason for why an extension is needed.”

In a similar vein, some students requested flexibility on grading (12 responses), one student suggesting “[p]ass/fail options for one course a semester.” One student also said there should be “[l]ess emphasis on grades”, while another suggested the faculty “[a]dd other ways to assess students!”

Other suggestions included getting rid of mandatory participation (8 responses), for professors to make sure they were properly prepared for class and communicated well (12 responses), providing ‘traditional’ mental health resources such as counselling (7 responses), being accessible (6), avoiding mandating that cameras be on (3 responses), reducing the price of law school, (3 responses), trying to avoid zoom burnout (9 responses), being clear with instructions and expectations (8 responses), and recording lectures (7 responses).

One student stated:

“Material changes NEED to be made. Yoga classes and counselors don’t help. Law students are overworked, plain and simple. The only way to help is to reduce the material burdens on law students – economic and time constraints especially.”

How Can Law School Student Associations Help

We also asked how law school student associations could assist with mental health needs during online semester.  This question spawned some diverse and disparate answers. The most obvious trend (31 responses) was a desire to see an increase in online events/networking activities. Students were interested in “[m]ore opportunities for ‘social’ online events”

A student noted that they “…worry about future students coming to law school. How will they be able to make connections (for both social and career reasons) with their peers in their group, or upper year students.” Another common suggestion was increased focus on putting on mental health themed events and providing resources (23 responses). Respondents again raised questions about workload and advocated for changes to grades or workload for law students (13 responses).

Nineteen responders thought there was nothing more that their student association could do to help. One student stated that:

“[t]hey already do a lot. They host workshops on nutrition, balance, managing the workload, feeling connected, and more. They have a support person, they remind us about [assistance programs], they send weekly updates and ask us to please reach out. Their effort is very clear. I am just stressed and I feel it is ironic that the same faculty that is offering all this help is crumpling me under the workload. I want to be here, I don’t want to drop out, but I am scrambling to find a solution to make this more manageable. It is extremely difficult for me.”

Other suggestions included discontinuing the use of Facebook and using emails instead, advocating for better articling protections, increasing money in the benefits plan, and having a mental health representative on student council.

Concluding Thoughts

Without drawing any scientific conclusions from our findings, what we learned is that many law students are suffering during this pandemic. In some cases, the suffering extended to self-harm, depression and a feeling of hopelessness. These feelings were exacerbated by the heavy workload of law school, which seemingly has not abated during the Pandemic.

At the University of Manitoba, Faculty of Law we have tried to assist with the mental health needs of students. In addition to University services, we hold regular mindfulness seminars, offer in-house and embedded counselling services and have a student association that also takes its role in contributing to law student mental health very seriously.

The results we uncovered occurred in the deep frigidity of lockdown in December to March 2020/21. We can only hope that with easing restrictions and the ability to engage in some “regular” activities, student mental health issues will see some relief. In Manitoba, where the late third wave resulted in another semester of remote learning, we react, watch, wait and hope that soon we can return to some semblance of normalcy and that we meet the mental health needs of our students. Balancing the need for rigour in maintaining a credentialed professional degree with the health and safety of students has likely been a durable challenge for law schools. The delicacy of this balancing act is even more acute during this era of Pandemic learning.

Comments

  1. First off let me just say that I never enjoyed “schooling”. That said, I do love learning. After reading this column I’m left somewhat confused.

    The writers initially state that, “[t]he mental health of law students was already top of mind for most law schools, but undoubtedly Pandemic learning has exacerbated the needs of law students”. So pre-pandemic law students were already experiencing mental health problems as a result of their workloads, stress, competitition etc. However, the writers conclude that “we react, watch, wait and hope that soon we can return to some semblance of normalcy and that we meet the mental health needs of our students”. This is confusing because returning to normalcy also means returning to a state wherein it seems many law students were already suffering from mental challenges as a result of their law school experience. So should returning to normalcy really be the aim of law schools?

    The writers use the term “pandemic learning”. However, the anecdotes provided from the students seem to point more to the schooling as opposed to the learning. I’m using schooling and learning simply because according to the Oxford Dictionary “to school” is: “discipline, bring under control, deliberately train or accustom to, induce to follow advice”. Whereas, to learn is defined as “get knowledge of (subject) or skill in (art, etc.) or ability to do, by study, experience or being taught”. The students appear to be struggling with “schooling”. Whatever challenges to their mental health the students experience appear to be a result of the “schooling” or the process and not because of the “learning”.

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