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“You are more than your grades”

Advocate advises students to put mental health first

March 8, 2019 — 

One of the most important lessons of the year for law students came from prominent Ontario lawyer Orlando Da Silva, who visited Robson Hall on March 1st, 2019. Having struggled with depression from a very young age, Da Silva, a former President of the Ontario Bar Association currently working at the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario, has been on a cross-Canada tour to talk to law students about the importance of talking about – and fighting the stigma of mental health.

Warning students in advance that he would be sharing some disturbing stories, Da Silva did not hold back with hard facts, including that lawyers are four times more likely than others to suffer from depression, and rank fourth in the professions where practitioners are most likely to die by suicide. He reported that according to a John Hopkins study, the more successful lawyers are, the more depressed they tend to be. This makes sense, he noted, since lawyers make their living from conflict. “In private practice,” he said, “it seemed that people around me were angry all the time.”

Citing statistics about how many law students will have been diagnosed with a mental illness by the time they reach their final year (40 per cent), and how many people have said they would continue to socialize with a friend who was diagnosed with a mental illness (only 47 per cent), Da Silva emphasized “how powerful and insidious” the stigma around mental health is. “I want to fight that stigma,” he said.

Da Silva warned that it is hard to identify when a classmate or friend is suffering from depression. Some, like himself, he said, are able to disguise it through working hard and staying focussed on studies. “Once they become listless and distracted at school or work,” he cautioned, “that means it’s really bad.”

People who are suffering can tend to isolate themselves, but isolation is the worst thing for you, Da Silva said. “You can’t get help unless you speak up,” he advised, emphasising that depression is a brain illness, and not a weakness. As proof, he explained how an MRI can detect activity in the brain, revealing how some areas indicate overactivity versus less activity, which can reveal an unhealthy brain imbalance.

“People living with mental health issues are the strongest I have known,” he said, concluding with some advice in response to student questions on how to find a work-life balance: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance,” he said, but explained that while lawyers have to work hard and get the job done sometimes, they then have to remember to take care of themselves. “Learn to say no,” he said. “Take care of your mental health as a top priority and don’t sacrifice it for work.”

A change in attitude towards mental health in law schools or firms has to be systematic, he said, namely that it “has to start with leadership” where a managing partner or law school Dean sets the example. “For culture to change it has to be from the top down.”

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The Faculty of Law is pleased to welcome David Ness from the University of Manitoba’s Student Counselling Centre to give a workshop to law students on “Managing Stress for Success,” Thursday, March 14 from 12:30 – 1:45 p.m. in Room 207, Robson Hall.

 

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