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Mental Health and Students: A Working Solution?

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The Sydney University Law Society recently hosted a panel-based discussion forum on the topic of how mental health issues amongst students, and law students in particular, may be addressed. Mental Health and Students: A Working Solution? was a funny, frank, frightening and fruitful discussion on the mental health issues faced by students from all faculties.

The panellists included Wenee Yap, founder of Survive Law and academic with UTS:Law; Heidi Fairhall, the President of NSW Young Lawyers; Kathryn Millist-Spendlove, barrister for Sir James Martin Chambers and member of the executive council with NSW Young Lawyers; and Sebastian Robertson, founder and CEO of the Batyr Foundation, and recipient of Sydney’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 by the School for Social Entrepreneurs.

The attendance was indicative of how important the issue is for many students, and the room was full of attentive faces nodding with almost every point that was made by the panellists.

The forum started off by discussing a very self-reflective question: is talking about it part of the solution? Wenee noted that for most law students, admitting failure is a silent taboo, with most high-achieving students believing they had no right to feel overwhelmed. Forums discussing mental health issues were recognised as a positive step, and one audience member commented that not even 10 years would this issue have been so openly discussed at law schools.

The notion of appreciation was also raised. “With most other high-pressure professions, you get appreciated for the hard work that you do,” Kathryn said. “If you’re an accountant, and you make money for your client, your work is appreciated! If you’re a doctor, and you save somebody’s life, your work is most certainly appreciated! With lawyers though, even when you win, your client has to pay your costs which are usually ridiculous, and they’re a little less inclined to appreciate the work you’ve done!”

Conversation then turned to whether there is anything inherent in the study of law in particular that has led to the staggering rates of depression in its students. Sebastian gave most law students in the room a reality check: he said he recognised the stress that the workload involved, but noted that medical students, economics students, commerce students and so on all deal with the same high level of stress in their studies, and that all students need to be realistic about the workload that will be involved in their degrees.

The role that alcohol plays was also raised. As the discussion wrapped up and the panellists were thanked for their contribution by gifts of wine, Heidi held up her bottle to the audience, stating “This is most certainly not the solution!”

The forum highlighted that students should never feel like they are the only ones facing these issues, and that they should not shy away from discussing their problems. More than ever before, law faculties and student groups recognise their responsibility to speak out about and work to address the issue of depression.

If you ever feel depressed, please seek help, and don’t ever feel afraid to talk about it. There is no shortage of wonderful organisations whose sole purpose is to assist people experiencing problems like stress, anxiety and depression. We recommend the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, the Black Dog Institute, and Beyond Blue. Or if you’re on campus, all universities provide counselling services for students.

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