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Made to measure: Mental health at Canadian law schools | Sharath Voleti

Thursday, February 18, 2021 @ 8:29 AM | By Sharath Voleti

Sharath Voleti %>
Sharath Voleti
The legal profession is grueling and stressful, with many lawyers facing mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety and addiction issues. Common refrains from lawyers include poor overall satisfaction and work-life balance, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the legal profession has taken important steps by providing supports such as the Member Assistance Program and raising awareness through continuing education programs. Comparatively little attention, however, has been paid to law student mental health.

Law student challenges

Law school is a transformative period for law students, with many experiencing considerable mental, emotional and physical pressure. Stressors include the intensity of schoolwork, the grade curve system, the strong correlation between grades and job attainment, the on-campus interviewing process and high student debt. Many students also face unique stresses spurred by their sociocultural and religious backgrounds. As a South Asian, a major impediment to seeking support is the need to preserve “face” and family reputation.

In response to this, Canadian law schools have expanded counselling services and programming and incorporated culturally sensitive approaches to safeguarding mental health. Compared to the United States, however, a major gap remains the lack of data that can inform a long-term strategy to improve law student mental health.

South of the border, 15 law schools distributed a law student mental health survey in 2014. The survey data and subsequent developments provided the impetus to create a National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, which issued several recommendations to law schools. In 2018, 103 out of the 199 American Bar Association accredited law schools participated in a follow-up survey that assessed compliance with the recommendations. In short, multiple U.S. schools spanning multiple jurisdictions have made a concerted effort to better understand law student mental health and wellness.

In Canada, a similar collective effort among the 23 accredited law schools has yet to materialize.

Windsor Law survey

I am the co-chair of the Windsor Law Mental Health and Wellness Initiative (MHWI), along with my 3L classmate Lawin Salah. To meet the data gap, we will be distributing a survey to measure law student mental health and wellness, break stigma, identify challenges and improve awareness of supports.

We are using a survey instrument administered previously by the University of Toronto in 2018 and by the Allard School of Law in 2019. The survey features clinically verified questions that measure mental health and wellness and cover topics such as anxiety, depression, substance use and eating disorders.

To ensure that the survey is consistent and relevant to our student body, we hired a consultant — L&L Consulting — to refresh the survey and create a Windsor Addendum. The Windsor Addendum will ensure that the multifactored nature of health and wellness is captured by allowing students who self-identify with a demographic group to answer questions relevant to their identity.

MHWI is grateful to the University of Windsor Student Mental Health Strategy Fund, for its generous support of the survey. We are also grateful to Windsor Law dean Chris Waters, for providing additional financial and administrative support.

Survey outreach

As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, credible messengers are essential, particularly for communities that face unique challenges not captured by a general approach. MHWI sought to incorporate the perspectives of our student body by reaching out to 17 student clubs such as the:

  • Middle Eastern Law Student Association;
  • Black Law Students’ Association;
  • Christian Legal Fellowship;
  • Women and the Law;
  • Asian Law Students’ Organization;
  • Disability Student Law Society; and
  • Jewish Students Association.

Club representatives attended consultation sessions, where they provided feedback on Windsor Law’s mental health supports, the survey and questions for the Windsor Addendum. The results of the survey will be shared with the clubs, with the hope that they create specialized initiatives for their club members.

Next steps

In the coming weeks, the MHWI, in conjunction with Windsor Law assistant dean, Student Services, Francine Herlehy, and clinical therapist, Laura Little, will distribute the survey to students.

To ensure strong uptake, we are offering prizes by LexisNexis (publisher of The Lawyer's Daily) including a textbook, gifts cards worth $250, and STAR Rewards points.

After the close of the survey, MHWI will collate the data and provide a summary of results to the Windsor Law student body. Moving forward, we want this survey to inculcate a culture of data management that will be used to set goals and evaluate progress.

Other Canadian law schools are considering distributing the same survey instrument regularly in the coming years, which will allow for an institutional and national examination of law student mental health. It is my hope that the survey will spur stakeholders to seek critical changes in law schools and the legal profession writ large.

Sharath Voleti is a 3rd year law student at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law. His legal areas of interest include civil litigation, privacy and administrative law.

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