4 tips for law students struggling with mental health issues

By: April 12, 2017

First, avoid telling yourself it’s no big deal

man juggling balls

During a commencement address in 1991 at the Georgia Institute of Technology, former Coca Cola CEO Bryan Dyson told the grads that, once they arrived in the workplace, they would become jugglers with the difficult task of keeping five balls in the air without mishap. He labelled them work, family, health, friends and spirit, and described work as a rubber ball that bounced back when dropped. The other balls were made of glass, and would get damaged if they weren’t caught.

In truth, we’re all faced with the daunting task of balancing and re-balancing competing priorities everyday. For over twenty years now, I’ve been counselling lawyers at every stage of their careers, and a recurring theme has been their struggle for a healthy work-life balance.

Last September, the Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society, which counsels lawyers and law students with personal issues confidentially, partnered with the Faculty of Law at the University of Calgary and retained me to provide on-site psychological services at the school. The program gives the university’s law students four free hours of counselling per year, and we’re seeing almost every available session being booked well in advance.

This is not surprising given the inherent stressors in law school. In addition to the five balls described by Dyson, law students also have to juggle tuition fees, GPAs, children, aging parents, articling placements, health concerns and a host of other demands. Many of them report feeling overwhelmed and perpetually anxious. The common psychological issues I’ve come across include anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and school or work concerns. What’s hard to determine, however, is how many students don’t seek help because of the stigma associated with mental illness (incorrectly viewed as a sign of weakness or something one should be able to snap out of) or the fear that it will hurt their career prospects.

In my experience, it’s the students who request help early that are more likely to resolve their problems before it impacts their studies, career or mental health in a more significant and lasting way. If you’re struggling right now or know somebody who is, here are a few of my suggestions:

  1. Take the time to decide what really matters to you (which balls are the most important), and come up with a plan for balancing these areas of your life.
  1. Remind yourself and those around you that professional counselling services are confidential, and there’s nothing weak about seeking help. Contact your province’s Lawyer’s Assistance Program (they’re available in every province) or your school’s counselling services.
  1. When you or someone you know takes the risk to share a mental health concern such as anxiety or depression, avoid using words like “crazy” or telling yourself or others to “snap out of it.”
  1. Avoid telling yourself an issue is “no big deal” or will get better by itself. Instead, seek assistance early as a preventive measure before the problem becomes more disruptive. “I’m beginning to drink more than I’d like, to cope with stress” is easier to address than “I’ve been overdrinking daily for several years.”
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