Mental health and the law

Nick Gowland writes about the mental health issues facing a huge chunk of law students.

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If the television show Suits actually wanted to accurately depict the practice of the law, then everyone would have smaller foreheads and the vast majority of each episode would depict the characters reading vast oceans of texts. Also, a third of the characters should be experiencing some sort of clinical depression, and a fifth should have severe problems with alcohol abuse.

It is almost a cliché these days that legal education and practice have a severe problem with mental health among its ranks. The reality is that mental illness exists in the system, and although it is absolutely treatable, its systemic origins and effects are yet to be adequately addressed. On September 24, the Sydney University Law Society hosted a forum on mental health issues in legal education, panelled by former Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery AM QC, Jordan Hammond of reachout.com, Marie Jepson of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, and Paul Menzies QC. The panel’s discussion did stress that progress is being made, even though Nicholas Cowdery emphasised the need to ‘de-stigmatise’ mental illness in the legal profession. Yet while Marie Jepson noted that 43% of law students will suffer levels of anxiety sufficient to warrant clinical attention sometime in their degree, nevertheless the discussion merely flirted with the question of why law students in particular seem to suffer such staggering rates of mental illness.

I would suggest that one answer may be systemic. Law is the study of the means by which society seeks to process what it deems morally and ethically reprehensible, and in such a context confrontation and disillusionment seem unavoidable. Couple this with stupidly high course entry barriers, the gladiatorial shitfest of clerkships, and an adversarial legal system which demands winners and losers, and you clearly have a recipe for a hyper-competitive big-fish-small-pond scenario where there will always to be those whose dreams are unattainable.

But there is something more subtle at play, and it is by no means isolated to the study of law. You only have to look at one of the endless ‘XYZ school memes’ Facebook pages to realise that certain courses see hair-tearing stress and caffeine-fuelled nights in the library as humorous clichés. When exceptional stress is the expectation, how can we possibly expect to know when a healthy motivator has transformed into a clinical problem? This ‘my problem’s not serious enough’ mentality is only exacerbated by countless first week housekeeping lectures which callously joke that, while special provisions are available, you better be in your death throes before looking for one because they’re not given out lightly.

Mental illness is obviously not the exclusive preserve of law school, and it is simplistic to attribute the development of mental illness entirely to the idiosyncrasies of high-intensity degrees. But in the battle against student mental illness, one-size-fits-all solutions won’t cut it. We have to look at the unique characteristics of a students’ study (as well as those of the student themselves) if we are to ever adequately address the causes of mental health problems within universities. While the ability of academic staff to monitor the stress levels of their individual students has been curtailed by funding cuts and increased workloads, one positive step might be to dedicate a lecture in all introductory courses to industry mental health in order to establish psychological wellbeing as a degree priority.

It’s no secret that law school, and indeed most forms of intensive tertiary education, are conducive to high levels of stress. The toll that this stress can take on the mental wellbeing of students should not be a secret either.

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