Law Students: the Silent Struggle with Mental Health and Wellbeing

By Haya Khan

‘Wellbeing Warriors’ is one of the multiple mental health groups from the University of Auckland. The Warriors aim to promote positive discussion around issues of mental health and spread awareness by creating an inclusive atmosphere within law school. In doing so, they hope to lower stress levels and anxieties that are rarely discussed but which are collectively faced by the majority of students.

Student volunteer for the committee, Veronica Shepherd, believes that the isolation and small size of the law school is a contributing factor to the stress law students face, as “it contributes to the effect on the mental health of students encouraging a competitive environment”.

Law students often find themselves comparing their grades and extracurricular involvement, which places pressure on them to perform at the same level as their peers.  “Law school is filled with Type A personalities,” Veronica noted, further stating that “people that excel in high school, [and] top the classes – I think if you put enough of those people in a pressure-filled environment [they] are bound to crack under the pressure.”

Out of the eight wellbeing focuses of the University, the Wellbeing Warriors have chosen to focus on two: ‘Connect’ and ‘Power off’. The focus on wellbeing has been relatively recent, and Veronica believes the response has been positive stating that “connect is about connecting with one another more. We are proposing non-alcoholic events as it has been a common request by members of the group and wellbeing surveys.”  

Part 2 study groups have also been proposed by the Wellbeing Warriors, as Veronica believes that “students can connect with other students to formulate discussions on different areas of the course”. The concept of connection is heavily focused on creating a community feeling, which helps to reduce a competitive atmosphere which pits students against one another. Instead, the Wellbeing group wants students to find common ground with their fellow students.

The “Power Off” concept explained by Veronica focuses on individual stress management; “this is mainly promoting good sleeping practices, caffeine alternatives and turning blue-light electronics off before bed. We are also promoting mindfulness as a relaxation technique through an app called ‘smiling mind‘ and more sessions on campus for those new to the mindfulness”.

A study carried out by the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry in Australia reiterates the idea of ‘type A personalities’. The study considered various factors that lead to exacerbating or creating mental illness in Law students, these being: social appraisal, status as a law student, appraisal of university-related activities, as well as online leisure activities. All of these factors, combined with a social pressure to excel among peers by achieving straight A’s and clerkship offers, placed immense pressure on students.

Though maintaining mental wellbeing is emphasised in the faculty as important for Law students, it is an easier route for students to dismiss it: Part 2 Law student Ben Bowley Drinnan expressed apathy toward “mental health stuff”. The maintenance of a mask of confidence to partake in the competitive atmosphere that law school presents, creates stigma around mental illness and shared stress and anxiety amongst students.

Part 2 Law student Ben Seto, agreed that competition among peers for ‘social appraisal’ also has an effect on the anxiety of students. Adjustment to the competition of Part 2 Law is a huge step up from part one, and Ben believed, “[adjustment to part 2] is something we only learn when we go through the ropes, [and] to stand out amongst 379 other competent law students in the Part 2 cohort causes anxiety”.

The ‘13 Reasons Why’ board in the Law cafe allows the creation of a sense of inclusion and community that may have been stifled within the competitive atmosphere. In the original ‘13 Reasons Why’ show, one of the contributing factors to the protagonists suicide was not only the sense of distance she felt from her peers, but also the lack of appropriate support. The show highlights the role mental illness stigma plays in preventing people from getting support, and the Wellbeing Warriors use the concept of the show as a way to encourage discourse around wellbeing. The board asks students to post ‘tips to their younger selves’ regarding mental wellbeing. Much like the show, the board unapologetically brings sensitive topics, often brushed under the rug, back out into the public sphere.

There is also an Elephant board alongside the 13 Reasons Why board, which anonymously discusses the negative feelings experienced by Law students in their private life. Veronica believes that the board creates a communal support system, and it’s nice for students “to know that people are going through the same things, and that there are options for people feeling stressed and unwell.”

The University of Auckland currently offers up to six counselling sessions for each student, however, there is no ability to pay for more, as they aim to accommodate everyone equally. This is a flaw in the University’s mental health support system, as the help that students with severe mental illnesses may need is unavailable. Although the university has taken up many other initiatives such as faculty wellbeing groups, they are often not a substitute for proper psychological support.

The Legal Framework

The introduction of the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 demonstrates a lost opportunity to constructively address the status of mental illness in New Zealand’s legal framework. This is due to the section 22 (1)(b) requirement of an objective test to determine the seriousness of the ‘harm’ to the victim, in determining whether the defendant can be held liable. The potential for failure to take into account the mental wellbeing of the victim continues to foster the stigma of mental illness in New Zealand.

This was addressed recently in March 2017 by High Court Justice Mathew Downs in Police v B. The issue of whether the defendant was liable under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 was raised. It was said his actions caused ‘serious emotional distress’. In the original decision in the District Court, it was said, “it is not enough to prove that the digital communication would cause harm to an objective person. The prosecution must establish that the communication did, in fact, cause harm to the victim.”

The defendant was originally held not liable under section 22 of the Act as the trial Judge did not believe the digital communication would have caused ‘serious emotional distress’ to a reasonable person. Justice Downs in the High Court disagreed and believed context was important in determining the liability for harm being imposed upon the victim. 

The status of mental illness remains a mitigating factor in criminal sentencing, as was discussed in Singh v Police where the defendant had ADHD. Justice Edwards required that there be a causative link between Singh’s ADHD and the crime. He explained further that authority from the Court of Appeal cautioned against mental illness mitigating moral fault (and therefore criminal culpability). Thus, care must be taken when assessing the impact of mental illness. The lack of causative link between the illness and the crime provides discretion for the Judge to not grant a discount, however, Justice Edwards recognised the difficulties regarding impulse control experienced by those with ADHD, and granted a 2-month discount.

The different perceptions in case law demonstrate that there is lack of clarity around the topic of mental illness due to its sensitive nature and the fact that the stigma is only starting to be addressed. The contrast in the opinions of the trial Judge and the Appeal Judge regarding ‘serious emotional distress’ in Police v B reflects the fact that the recognition of the severity of a defendant’s mental illness rests purely in the discretion of the particular judge, rather than in any legal guidelines. 

It is important for the mental wellbeing of students that the legal framework of New Zealand appropriately addresses mental wellbeing issues, in a manner that helps to generate discourse and which highlights its detrimental effects.

A Part 2 law student anonymously stated that though the stigma around mental illness is changing with education, he still believes that many people are ignorant: “so many people are just incredibly flippant about it or don’t understand the seriousness of it.” He referred specifically to New Zealand culture, which he believed creates reluctance to share one’s mental wellbeing: “the whole ‘suck it up bro’ thing”.

But it is not only law students affected by educational anxiety: this is a universal issue faced by all age groups and faculties. Statistics from the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand show that in 2014 one out of six adults were diagnosed with some common mental disorder at some point in their lives, with mental disorders being the third leading cause for health loss just behind cancer and vascular and blood disorders.

The study showed that though the rates of suicide in youth had decreased significantly from 2011, with 2014 seeing the lowest rate of suicide in people aged 15-19, mental illness still severely impacts the youth of New Zealand. 

The pressure to be a perfect law student places such detrimental effects on mental well being, and it is essential to effectively address it as not a weakness. Unapologetic discussion regarding the topic of mental illness is essential as demonstrated by the initiatives taken by the University. Reducing stigma and allowing people to discuss their stress assists in creating an atmosphere that fuels positive wellbeing rather than fostering hidden negativity.

Where to get help:

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