Taking Care of Hearts and Minds
A New Approach for Lawyers-in-Training
The study of Law is an intellectually challenging and life-consuming endeavour, but mental health is not something lawyers have traditionally been willing to discuss openly. An in-depth CBC report from 2016 examined research that found lawyers are at higher risk of mental health issues and addictions than the general populace.
During the 2017 – 2018 academic year, both Robson Hall Faculty of Law administrators and students took concrete steps to address and raise awareness of mental health stressors on Law students with a number of events: The Dean’s office worked together with the Associate Dean (Academic) to introduce an on-site student counsellor this January. Independently, Manitoba law students formed a Robson Hall Mental Health Group, and this spring the Manitoba Law Students Association (MLSA) Spirit Committee fully embraced organizing the annual Law Students’ “Wellness Days.” Most recently, the AD (Academic)’s office brought in David Ness, Director of the University of Manitoba’s Student Counselling Centre to speak to law students on Managing Stress for Success right before exams.
Dr. Marlene Pomrenke is Robson Hall’s new on-site student counsellor, available to law students since mid-January, 2018 every Tuesday morning (with advance appointment through the Student Counselling Centre and specifying that you are a law student).
In an interview one quiet Tuesday morning, Pomrenke said that when sitting down with a law student, she first asks what kind of law the student is thinking of going into. She has worked with lawyers in the past and is aware of the kinds of issues students focusing in particular areas of the law will eventually face as full-fledged lawyers. She also observed that here at the Faculty of Law, students “have learned to study already,” and that their concerns relate more to academic expectations and stress.
Pomrenke offered some signs and symptoms for students to take note of to recognize when it might be time to seek help from a counsellor:
- Loss of motivation
- Feeling overwhelmed, especially if it’s all the time and not just at exam time (friends and family can pick up on this)
- When a friend or loved one starts behaving differently and having trouble managing things in an on-going manner such as day-to-day needs, staying in bed all day, or not being able to get to school.
To stay healthy throughout school, Pomrenke recommends maintaining balance in life, i.e. incorporating physical activity into your routine, eating as well as possible, and reaching out for support when needed. Making time to be with family and friends rather than just finding time is also important, she said. “Really, it’s about maintaining a connection with someone else.” That kind of support from others is essential for well-being, she added.
Life as a practicing lawyer is only going to get more stressful and full of more responsibilities, said Pomrenke, so as a means of preparing for life after law school, students should learn balance in their lives now, maintain interpersonal relationships, network and find those relationships that will nurture them. “Have a glass of wine or coffee with colleagues,” she said, as an example. Fitting physical activity into your life now and maintaining it for the long term is important, she said. “Finding ways now will help with the rest of your life.”
Dr. Pomrenke encourages law students to take advantage of the group programs and workshops offered at the Student Counselling Centre.
“Students are now talking more openly about counselling,” she said, “because society regards mental health as important.” For a profession with a tradition of suffering in silence while enduring higher rates of mental health problems, this is a very good thing for law students.
Professional Association Help for Practicing Lawyers
Currently, about one third of Faculty of Law students who are enrolled in clinical experience internships and clinics, (i.e. Legal Aid and Business Law Clinics, Pro Bono Students), are members of the Law Society of Manitoba and as such, are entitled to access to its Lawyers Health and Wellness program as are articling students and practicing lawyers. The program is a free and confidential service that offers counselling to help with stress, addictions, relationship and other emotional and mental health situations. The service is provided through the Manitoba Blue Cross Employee Assistance Centre through a contract with the Law Society of Manitoba.
The Manitoba Bar Association also has a number of mental health and wellness supports available to lawyers in Manitoba and to all law students, for whom the Faculty of Law has paid MBA memberships. These supports include the CBA Wellness Forum’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers Committee.
Robson Hall Mental Health Group
For their part, students in the Robson Hall Mental Health Group took part in the Bell Let’s Talk day earlier this year, collecting student responses for ways to deal with stress and what surprised them about law school. Getting exercise and spending time with family and friends were common ways of coping, according to student responses displayed in the Robson Hall Common Room.
A forthcoming project of the Robson Hall Mental Health Group called “Robson Resiliency” is intended to further open the conversation about mental health and the legal profession. The student group plans to collect stories from law school alumni on how they overcame challenges to succeed against all odds. The group invites anyone with such a story to please contact them at robsonMHG [at] gmail [dot] com.
Wellness Days at Robson Hall
Students had the opportunity to let loose a little during Robson Hall’s annual Wellness Daysthis March, organized by the MLSA Spirit Committee and the Associate Dean (Academic)’s office. Wellness Days is a new tradition for law students across the country, started about five years ago through the AD (Academic)’s office as part of a National Law Students Wellness Day. This year in mid-March, student Spirit Committee co-chairs Emily Cummings and Cole Gagne hosted activities intended to promote student health and well-being including a guest comedy troupe, headed by comedian, actor, writer – and law student, Anjali Sandhu. Dietitian Jessica Wylenchenko spoke to students while healthy snacks were made available in the Common Room. Students brought their pets for a furry therapy visit while Associate Dean Lisa Fainstein and Student Advisor Rosa Muller served up hot dogs for a Polar Bear barbeque.
Just before exams, the Associate Dean’s office hosted David Ness from the Student Counselling Service to speak to students about managing stress. He brought with him information that can help students cope with stress throughout exam season.