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Mental health of students en route to becoming lawyers

Monday, August 31, 2020 @ 11:14 AM | By Oksana Romanov


Oksana Romanov %>
Oksana Romanov
As incoming law students, we need to look out for our mental health and wellness. I have at least three reasons why we should do that early on in our legal career and especially this unusual and stressful year — the year of the pandemic.

Reason number one

First of all, there is no health without mental health. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), “Mental health is not only the avoidance of mental health conditions. Your mental health is affected by numerous factors from your daily life, including the stress of balancing work with your health and relationships.” Furthermore, one need to make a regular effort “stay mentally fit and healthy across the lifespan.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is used by both the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the Medical Council of Canada (as of 2014). DSM-5 defines all types of diagnosable mental illnesses and mental disorders. According to the APA, mental health is about effective daily functioning, i.e. “(1) productive activities (work, school, caregiving), (2) healthy relationships; and,  (3) ability to adapt to change and cope.” Mental illness signifies “significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior [and] [d]istress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” Based on these definitions, there is true health and productive life without good mental health.

Mental health factsheet

According to Statistics Canada, one in five Canadians needed mental health care in 2018. Although people may experience ups and downs in their mental health throughout their lifetime, the onset of most mental health issues happens in the early 20s as per the APA’s data. CMHA states that more than 28 per cent of people aged 20-29 years are affected by poor mental health yearly. It is definitely an alarming piece of news for young adults, including law school students.

In 2016, 59.4 per cent of female Canadians aged 25-34 years and 40.6 per cent of males in the same age group accounted for all degree (“university certificate, diploma or degree at bachelor level or above”) holders in legal professions and studies. Let’s take Toronto as an example. The Osgoode Hall Law School’s 2019 admissions survey indicates that 58 per cent of its entering class is between the ages of 20-24. Another 24 per cent were aged 25-29 years. The University of Toronto’s JD first year class profile for the same year shows that 89 per cent of 1Ls came through the general stream age-wise.

According to the Law School Admissions Council’s recent LSAT taker data, only a small percentage, i.e. 2.5 and 4.1 per cent (depending on the region), are over the age of 40.

Reason number two

Secondly, the legal profession as a whole is concerned with the incidence and impact of poor mental health on its members. Unfortunately, our work culture is driven by perfection, competition and success, which all encourage unhealthy work habits leading to burnout.

The Canadian Bar Association (CBA) has a dedicated section, the Well-being Subcommittee, which conducts research into all aspects of mental health and wellness in the legal profession. In 2012, CBA conducted the survey Lawyers on Wellness Issues. The results are compelling: “58% of lawyers, judges, and law students surveyed had experienced significant stress/burnout, 48% had experienced anxiety and 25% had suffered from depression.” Fifty-seven per cent of the surveyed lawyers were concerned about the working hours. “Stress/burnout and anxiety were two issues perceived as most prevalent in the legal profession (94% and 68%, respectively).”

Furthermore, survey respondents indicated an urgent need to change the culture within the legal profession to reduce the stigma of having mental health conditions and seeking help to address those. The following statements exemplify key mental health topic issues in the legal profession:

  • “Change in culture: showing weakness is seen to be fatal to a career.”
  • “Demystify. Mental, emotional health and behavioural issues are still taboo in our professional environment …”
  • “Greater education to quell the anxiety that lawyers have about being “outed” as having problems.”

Additionally, the Mental Health & Awareness Committee of the CBA Young Lawyer Section recognizes that the legal professional is struggling with mental health and addition issues. According to Candice Ashley Pollack, a member-at-large on the CBA Young Lawyers Section, “lawyers are among the top three professionals to face substance abuse issues, along with doctors and police officers.” To address the stigma surrounding mental health issues, young lawyers developed a social media campaign with the #LawNeedsWellnessBecause hashtag to encourage self-care among lawyers.

Finally, CBA offers the Solutions Series for Law Students, promotes well-being and encourages networking through virtual coffee chats — connect to talk — during the pandemic.

Reason number three

Thirdly, dedicated mental health supports for law students came to campus. For example, a collaborative of six Ontario law faculties, headed by York University, partnered to address mental health of law students. The Ontario Law School Mental Health Initiative led to the creation of various resources and supports available to legal educators and law students, including (1) “the formal network of law school administration in Ontario; (2) a comprehensive website offering mental health resources and supports for law students; and, (3) developed, co-ordinated and promoted peer support programs for Ontario law students.”

To conclude, law students are at risk for developing mental health issues. There are several contributing factors: age group, excessive study hours and increased demands in law school, legal work culture and added stress and anxiety associated with the uncertain times. 

Oksana Romanov is an aspiring lawyer, who is passionate about fostering inclusive communities, effecting social change and advocating for human rights of persons with disabilities in order to remove attitudinal and environmental barriers to their full participation is society. In September, she is starting the first year of law school at Ryerson University. To learn more about the author, you can visit her LinkedIn profile.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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