On-site counsellor, web resources, stress-buster programming: how the Faculty of Law is tackling the issue of student mental health

By Cynthia Macdonald / Illustration by Ashley Mackenzie / Photography by Nick Wong

From the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of Nexus

Mental Health illustrationIn his final year at U of T law school, Orlando Da Silva, JD 1993, was the very picture of success. On the threshold of starting a job with one of the country’s largest law firms, he also earned excellent marks and was co-editor in chief of the Law Review, the student journal.

Remarkably, Da Silva did all this while suffering a major depressive episode—one of many that had afflicted him periodically since childhood. Twenty-four years later, it is something he still deals with. “During those times, it’s hard to concentrate,” he says. “You get thoughts of worthlessness, self-hatred and self-harm.” At his lowest point in law school, he thought constantly of ending his life: “Every waking moment, until I’d fall asleep with exhaustion.”

Now a lead trial lawyer for the province, the former Ontario Bar Association president is a hugely influential advocate for mental health within the Canadian legal profession. Unfortunately, except for the high public profile that surrounds it, Da Silva’s story is not unique.

Last year, an American Bar Association survey revealed a wide range of psychological concerns among lawyers: almost a quarter of respondents qualified as problem drinkers, while more than a quarter were depressed. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control revealed that lawyers have the fourth highest rate of suicide among professional populations (behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians). And a 2015 study from the US-based Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which surveyed more than 12,000 lawyers, found significant levels of depression (28 percent), anxiety (19 percent) and stress (23 percent). (Canadian data are not currently available).

Law is a notoriously competitive and adversarial field. Law school can be as well; there, the stresses are different but no less severe. They may include concern over marks, finances, and a shrinking job market, as well as the biological reality that much mental illness sets in prior to age 25.

Is this bleak picture inevitable, before one’s legal career even begins? Absolutely not, says Da Silva. “There’s a self-stigma that lawyers face. You’re supposed to be able to solve your own problems, and that stigma keeps everyone from seeking help. But 80 percent of those who do get help will recover.”

Across North America, institutions are tackling the problem in various ways. Provincial bar associations all provide a variety of assistance measures, such as phone counselling and psychological referrals. Websites and blogs, such as justbalance.ca and Lawyers with Depression, are also available, as is an online course (on mental health and wellness) offered by the Canadian Bar Association.

Most importantly, law schools are listening too. “We know that over the past few years, universities and other post-secondary institutions have been experiencing a spike in the number of students who are struggling with mental health challenges that impact their studies,” says Alexis Archbold, assistant dean of the Faculty of Law’s JD program. “We felt it was important to develop our own programs and services that are informed by best practices, and are responsive to students’ needs.”

The Faculty’s new mental health strategy document is still in the draft stage, but most of its key recommendations are already underway. Chief among these is the hiring of an on-site counsellor. A 2000 graduate of the school’s combined JD/MSW (master of social work) program, Yukimi Henry has been in the position since last February. 

Not all students have mental illness but, as Singh notes, all have mental health, which must be persistently tended.

The presence of an “embedded” counsellor at Law (as opposed to one hired to serve all U of T students) has made help much easier to get. “The amount of time a student has to wait to access my services is dramatically different than it used to be,” says Henry. “Accessibility is better too, because I’m in the same building.”

Because some may not feel comfortable seeing a counsellor, Henry says it’s important that the Faculty of Law offer a wide range of services, such as printed and web-based assessment tools and resources, and stress-busting initiatives such as games nights or dog-walking events. Learning strategists can help with issues related to schoolwork; visiting alumni mentors can ease career fears. Says Henry: “You could have therapy on one end, and programs that allow students to engage with another on the opposite. It’s about having a comprehensive notion of wellness, and helping them to develop a broader skill set for their well-being.”

A criminal lawyer and social worker, Henry is also uniquely placed to understand the problems students present. “I think it makes it easier for them to identify with me,” she says.

Micheline Singh agrees. The second-year law student currently serves on the Student Mental Health and Wellness committee, and has been active in the field since founding a peer-to-peer support program as an undergraduate in the Ivey School of Business at Western University.

“They pushed us really hard at Ivey, just as they do in law school,” she says. “Some nights you don’t sleep.” While the law school’s placement rate has remained steady at about 95 percent, available articling positions in Ontario continue to decrease—which has also ramped up anxiety and uncertainty within her cohort. “Everyone is vying for the same positions, and people are scared to talk about it.”

Which is why Singh has seen it to be so necessary to complement the administration’s programs with ones that are student-led. “We want to provide a safe space for students to talk about this, because in the day to day life of law school it’s hard to; the pressures on our time are considerable.” Young lawyers suffer even more self-stigma than their older counterparts, and she feels it’s critical that students hear from experienced lawyers on the subject. “Seeing them talk about it gives younger people incentive to follow that lead,” she says. “And to know that things will be okay.”

The range of what constitutes mental health problems is vast: everything from mild stress, to disorders such as bipolar illness or schizophrenia. Those dealing with illness of a more serious nature are able to request accommodations (for example, extra time on exams). Henry supports these students by informing them about the options the University of Toronto’s Accessibility Services provides; she also helps to streamline the process by, among other things, providing needed paperwork. She says that part of the spike in student requests for help may result from a changing economic and social climate, “but it’s also the question of whether students are coming into postsecondary institutions with more complex needs as well.”

Not all students have mental illness but, as Singh notes, all have mental health, which must be persistently tended. U of T Law was, in fact, one of the first faculties on campus to relieve stress by building community, via “Doggie Days” and crafts nights. Several years ago, the school also changed its grading system: traditional letter grades have now been replaced by another rubric consisting of High Honours, Honours, Pass, Low Pass and Fail, which doesn’t pigeonhole students as ruthlessly and is thought to have better effects on student mental health.

Building resilience:  Yukimi Henry (L), Micheline Singh, Orlando DaSilva
Yukimi Henry (L), Micheline Singh, Orlando DaSilva

Of course, there are those who see the stress-busting measures as infantilizing—more appropriate, perhaps, to 18-year-old undergraduates than to adults facing an inherently stressful professional career. US legal scholar John Banzhaf claims North American law schools are creating a generation of “wussified” lawyers. As he recently told the Times Higher Education supplement: “We depend on lawyers to stand up to tremendous pressures, to judges who will try to shut them down, very strong opposing counsel, and community pressures if you’re defending an unpopular defendant or cause. If they are wusses….the consequences are more serious.”

But Yukimi Henry counters that the whole point of mental health initiatives is to build that very resilience so valued by professors like Banzhaf. “Individuals are not looking for special privileges, they’re looking for a system that better represents them, whether they have mental health issues, or obligations to other people in their lives, or any number of concerns,” she says.

“Fostering a sense of internal capacity to withstand adversity is absolutely critical. But this particular narrative runs on the notion that the best way to do that is tell people to sink or swim. It’s Darwinian, and frankly immoral in many respects. It doesn’t work.”

Orlando Da Silva would agree. He grew up in an abusive household. Fearing the consequences of revelation, he learned to stay “strong” and silent about his depression. In doing so, he had no idea that many others felt the way he did.

“I received an award from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health last year, and it was only as a result of winning it that I realized a previous winner was a classmate of mine who’d also suffered from depression” he says. “We sat beside each other in a number of classes. At times, I think back how much easier it would have been if we’d known we had the same illness. We could have talked about it.”

That classmate, Richard Braudo, LLB 1994, ultimately triumphed over years of bipolar illness to become a renowned expert on the intersection between mental health and the criminal law system. Braudo’s unique and valuable career points to the reality that stress and depression are obvious risks of the legal process for clients as well: a compassionate lawyer who can empathize with their experience is obviously one who can serve them much more effectively.

Da Silva firmly believes that all the remedial measures in both law and law school will have little effect if the culture surrounding the law continues as is. U of T Law is doing its part by showing students that they have the power to make choices in their career; not to vie in war-like fashion for a limited number of positions, but to practice law differently and more flexibly. 

In the legal world, though, particularly for litigators and those working in big firms, the message is coming through more slowly. “You can have every strategy you want, but as somebody once said, culture eats strategy for breakfast every morning,” Da Silva says. “Performance metrics and profitability are much more important than they used to be in some firms,” so if more attention were paid to mental health, productivity would likely go up—less absenteeism, less presentism (there in body, but not in spirit), more confidence building a client base.

But as Da Silva points out, increasing quality of life, not work capacity, is in the end the real point of mental health awareness. “Lawyers have always been high-functioning individuals, and the last thing that goes for them is productivity. While suffering major depression in law school, my marks barely changed and neither did my performance.”

As his experience shows, U of T has long produced stellar lawyers. The time has now come to ensure that their internal lives are every bit as rewarding as those they live on the outside.