A Message to all Law Students on R U OK Day
By Bek de Keijzer
It’s no secret that mental health is a big issue in the legal profession. From the very first day of Law School, we are taught that we are more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population. This knowledge is a heavy burden to carry throughout the rest of our degree and into our careers. The Brain and Mind Research Institute reported in 2009 that almost a third of solicitors and one in five barristers suffer from clinical depression. These statistics are huge, but are they really a surprise? Often the traits that make someone a ‘good lawyer’ are also the ones that might lead to mental health problems- such as working late hours, dealing with heavy subject matter and being able to manage it all without a complaint.
For law students and professionals in the industry, we often become very good at hiding what we are going through, fearing that others would view us as ‘weak’ or ‘not cut out’ for the legal industry if we were to be open about our struggles. However, what we don’t realise is that the person next to us (the very person we are terrified of opening up to) probably also has the same anxieties and fears. At some point in their lives, everyone has struggled with managing their studies, feeling included, making their parents proud and job prospects upon graduation. The problem is that very few of us talk about it- a problem that not only occurs in law school but also exists in the highest levels of the legal profession. No one wants to be seen as the one who can’t handle the pressure or the workload and in doing so- we manage to alienate ourselves from support networks that are vital to have a happy and meaningful life. In five years of law school, I’ve dealt with a lot of personal and professional issues. I am by no means an expert on mental health or a qualified psychologist (referrals will be at the bottom of this article), but I can offer some tips on how to make it through law school without losing yourself.
Don’t feel discouraged by the people around you who seem to have it all figured out. We all struggle. Law students by nature tend to be quite competitive people- we compete for the best grades, the best clerkships and the best graduate job offers. Throughout all this, it can become hard to open up because we want to present ourselves as a sophisticated and competent person. I spoke to a friend who graduated recently and he told me he was amazed at how people became more open to sharing their lives after the “competition” of law school was over. He wished people had been more forthcoming about deferring semesters of study because they were struggling with mental health or they felt worthless when they worked hard but their grades didn’t reflect it. We aren’t alone in our struggles and we don’t have to put up a competitive front or feel we are worth anything less because of the success of those around us.
Remember that we are all on our own individual journeys. Every person has a different set of goals and value-system. Very few of us want to end up in the exact same place. Yes, law students compete for clerkships, but it would be impossible to have the exact same strengths and goals as the person next to you. It can be hard, but we should try not to compare ourselves too much to our peers because everyone has a different idea of what success means to them. Set your own goals and don’t get too down by the person next to you who seems to be succeeding so much more than you. You aren’t the same person! You will find your own path and you will never make your own dreams come true by following someone else’s.
Success is subjective. If you know you did your best for an assignment and received a 68% then you are just as successful as your peer who did their personal best and received an 80%. At the end of the day, we shouldn’t derive our self-worth from grades, how well we fare in clerkship applications or how many firms want to hire us. The way that we feel about ourselves is more important than any of those external factors. One of my friends had clerked and was working as a paralegal at a top-tier law firm, seemingly poised to receive a grad job offer. To everyone’s shock, she ended up quitting this firm and moving back to the smaller boutique firm she was originally at. Why? Because it made her happier. It was what she genuinely wanted- not what others were telling her she should want. At the end of your life, you won’t be looking back at an endless list of achievements. You will remember and cherish the times when you were genuinely happy and you made the people around you happy.
Find your support networks. I have been so lucky to have made so many wonderful friends throughout my time in law school. The late nights in the library studying for exams, stress over difficult assignments and anxieties about the future were all made better because I surrounded myself with people who lifted me up and I did the same in return. It’s also important to have friendship circles and hobbies outside of law school. Give yourself adequate breaks from law to avoid burn out. Don’t make it your entire identity- you’re more than a law student, legal graduate or a lawyer. You’re a person.
Be open about your struggles. There is a certain strength in vulnerability and sometimes the bravest thing you can do is be open and say you’re not okay. Your friends love you and want you to be happy- you’re not a burden. If you feel too afraid to talk to your peers, then use the many mental health services available to you (whether it is your university counsellor, your GP, your psychologist). If you are someone who is naturally quite empathetic with a tendency to always be supporting your peers, be mindful to also check in on yourself. I know I have always prided myself on being an incredibly resilient person despite everything life threw at me, but everyone needs someone to talk to. Don’t bury the way you feel or ridicule yourself for being ‘weak’. Reach out if you need help and support those who are struggling while also taking care of yourself.
This R U OK Day, let’s start a meaningful dialogue about mental health. You’re not alone so don’t feel afraid to reach out to the person next to you. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking, ‘Are you okay?’.
Lifeline Phone Number: 13 11 14
Deakin Mental Health Information & Referral Services: https://www.deakin.edu.au/students/health-and-wellbeing/counselling/topics-to-explore/mental-health