I’m healthy, so why would I care about depression?

During university, I felt like I was bombarded with information on depression and mental health issues. It came from everywhere; legal websites, magazines, Facebook, and even during practical legal training.

For some reason it never resonated, or maybe I just didn’t care – I was healthy, so why would I care?

Depression and law school
So much study, exam prep and green stuff to deal with…

My “story”

It feels a little gimmicky using the word “story” (it’s really not that dramatic), but after my experience at uni, I certainly take more of an interest in staying healthy.

Just for the record, some people experience absolutely debilitating depression and metal health issues, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that I experienced anything like that. However, I also think it’s really important not to minimise any mental health issues.

In this spirit, I would like to share my own story of struggling through my final leg of uni. Hopefully if anyone else out there feels the same way, you’ll know that you’re not the only one!

At the end of this post I’ve also collected some tips to help out if you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Even if you’re feeling on top of the world right now it never hurts to know what’s out there to make sure you stay healthy. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention…

My final year was “pretty rough”

All of my friends and family knew I was studying law, and this is what I would say to them when they asked how everything was going. It was “pretty rough” (and cue grimace and short laugh)! I think I was a little more positive in the first few years.

It actually makes me laugh thinking back. Rough is having a cold and having to finish an essay. Rough is having three or four exams scheduled in the same week, or waking up with a hangover and not having access to a greasy bacon and egg roll.

Rough was my euphemism for being constantly stressed out about everything – keeping up to date with my readings, finishing essays, writing exam notes, and ultimately, the uncertainty about whether I would ever get a job. I had given up a previous career for law, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to be successful.

Law school choice and mental health issues.
Whyyyyyyyy???

I’m generally a calm person and like most people I can deal with stress in the course of ordinary life, but my tipping point was around the end of second year. My uni timeline went a little like this: everything was new and exciting in my first year, second year was study study study, and then the final year was stress stress stress (“rough”).

So what did I notice that had changed? Well, nothing really! I just knew that I was stressed.

My partner, however, noticed much more. She was was sick of me talking about law all the time, sick of me being constantly negative (ie complaining about my readings, study prep and impending exams), and was frustrated that I never wanted to get out of the house to do anything.

The biggest clue that I should have notices was that I didn’t even want to catch up with friends on the weekend for a coffee or beer. It just seemed like such a chore. In hindsight I don’t know how I missed it.

By the time that I realised something had to change I was only a few months from finishing, so I simply ignored it and pushed through – again, not the best idea in hindsight, but it is what it is.

I finished my final set of exams without having a job lined up, but luckily, I managed to land a grad role shortly after. At that point a significant amount of stress simply vanished. It made an absolute world of difference, though it probably took a few months to “equal out” and feel like a normal human being again.

What would I change, and what do I do now?

The conclusion that I’ve reached is that I did two things wrong:

  • I didn’t take my stress levels seriously; and
  • I didn’t do anything about my stress even when it did get too much, I just kept pushing though.

Has this changed anything in my current day to day life?

The short answer is yes, though I have to actively work on it.

First, I try not to dismiss my stress. If I’ve had a long day and I’m feeling stressed out, I ask myself whether it has just been this day, or whether it has been like this for a few days, weeks or months. Sometimes it’s difficult to stop and reflect when you have a goal on the horizon. I found this particularly hard at law school because finishing each subject meant that I had constant goals for three years straight.

Secondly, When I need a break, I have to try hard to switch off. That means that I put aside a half day (or whole day if I’m lucky) and just relax. For me, this usually means doing a few simple chores around the house and spending an hour or so in the garden (makes me feel like I have accomplished something!), I’ll go for a run or a swim, and then I’ll binge watch a few hours of some TV series with a beer or two. I’m an introvert so I need time alone to recharge – my partner usually catches up with friends or family.

The scariest part was that I didn’t notice it all creeping up the first time, so I’m worried that it will happen again.

What are your risk factors? (Or, what causes mental health issues and depression in law)

So what are some of the risk factors for law students? Well, there are a lot, and I doubt you’ll be able to read through this list without having a few hit home.

  • Extraordinary amount of reading for each and every subject
  • Juggling readings, essays and exams
  • Pressure to achieve high scores
  • Competition between students
  • Juggling work and uni
  • Juggling volunteering and uni
  • The fact that law students can be overly critical of themselves
  • The fact that law students can be perfectionists (it makes finishing essays so difficult!)
  • Pressure to meet the expectations of your family and friends
  • Pressure to succeed in every aspect of uni and work life
  • Pressure to secure coveted seasonal clerk positions
  • Scarcity of graduate jobs and pressure to find employment
  • Minimising any issues you may have regarding stress and mental health
  • Trying to manage all of the above and remain calm and collected

It’s hardly surprising that law students have one of the highest depression rates among all students in Australia when you have a list like this in front of you.

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed then I hope you will consider taking a step back and addressing it. Don’t leave it for any longer or try to minimise it. You could end up where I was, or in a place that’s much more difficult to bounce back from.

Practical tips

Law school is tough and it can take its toll on your mental fortitude. It has affected me, others, and will continue to affect law students in the future. You need to keep an eye out for yourself.

The good news is that there are many resources available to help you through – the trick is recognising how important they are and using them when you need to.

  • (Professional help) Hmm, shouldn’t this be the last thing you try? It’s up to you, but I’d argue that it should be the first thing you do. There are a lot of people out there who have dedicated their lives to helping people recognise and deal with mental health issues. In a single visit or phone call, they might be able to provide more help than you could yourself in a few months. I’ve got a bit more info on this below.
  • (Law free breaks) Take frequent breaks from law. Set a few “no law” periods during your week and stick to it. This could be as simple as having Monday and Friday nights off if you are really busy, but I would highly recommend taking the whole weekend off if you can. (I tried to do this but it didn’t work for me.)
  • (Loooooonger breaks) Take a longer break if you need to. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in taking a semester off if you need it. I know plenty of people who did this at all different stages of the degree. In fact, some people do it on purpose so that they are “penultimate” students for two years in a row (and can therefore apply for more clerkships)!  Taking 4-6 months off might seem like a long period now, but it won’t make one iota of difference in a few years time.
  • (Meditation and  mindfulness) The new corporate buzzwords of the legal industry! You don’t need to be a hippy to get involved in meditation and mindfulness. I would highly recommend downloading the free Smiling Mind app here. It provides short 10 minute guided meditation and breathing exercises to do at home. Despite cringing every time I hear “mindfulness”, I’m a big believer and think it has made a difference for me. Take a look and see if it works for you (but note that you will need to keep at it for a few weeks to get the hang of it).
You don't need to be a hippie to practice mindfulness.
You don’t need to be a hippie or have your own private lake to practice mindfulness – you can start by simply downloading the Smiling Mind app and sitting in your lounge room. (Seriously, it’s free, it’s really helpful, and you’ve got nothing to lose.)
  • (Talk to someone) Talk to your friends, family, partner or lover/s. A meaningful conversation with someone close really can help.
  • (Write it down) Each evening, grab a notepad and write down a few things positive things about yourself. This will help you focus on what makes you awesome. You can also write down any negative thoughts (for example, things that are stressing you out) – if you do, provide a short response for each of them. If clerkship applications are stressing you out, then your response will be that you’ve worked hard on your applications, you’ve done all you can, and now you just have to wait. This helps put things in perspective and it’s especially helpful for people who are working on their confidence. I tried this for a while and found it helpful.
  • (Exercise) I guess we’re down to the boring tips now. I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times before, but it’s worth repeating. Exercise is really important and massively beneficial. You don’t need to prepare for a triathlon – just keep it simple if you want. I go for a a 20 minute walk at lunch each day and go for a run or swim on the weekend. No 6am boot camps necessary!
  • (Want some more?) If you would like a few more things to consider, head over to The Wellness Doctrines’ resources page here. Jerome Doraisamy maintains a great website and all proceeds of his book, The Wellness Doctrines, go to the Triston Jepson Memorial Foundation.

Professional help

If you have tried to manage every thing yourself and just can’t quite seem to get a handle on your stress levels or the way you’re feeling, pick up the phone and organise some professional help. As mentioned above, you should also seriously consider talking to a professional as the first step.

A friend of mine who was going through a difficult period (he told me a few months later – I wouldn’t have picked it at all) used the free telephone counselling available through our work to discuss his issues. He said that they were absolutely amazing – down to earth, easy to talk to, they listened and cared, and helped him to get back on track.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and after listening to him, I think I should have done the same.

So where can you get some professional help?

  • (Free university counselling) Check your university first. They will provide some free counselling sessions to students who are having a rough time.
  • (State law societies) State law societies will also provide free counselling, but usually only if you’re a member. Check out their webpage to find out the details.
  • (Your work) Almost all workplaces these days will provide free telephone counselling to their staff. This will be totally anonymous and the only information your employer will receive is how many people per month have used the service.
  • (Paid professional help) Of course, you can also speak to your doctor about how you’re feeling. They can then refer you on for professional help. In some situations the first 10 counselling sessions will be fully subsidised by the government, so it won’t cost you anything. Alternatively, you can go directly to a psychologist.

As you can see, there are a lot of pathways to seek professional help out there. Use them if you need it.

Law school should be fun!

It’s not like on application day we all sat around that though “hmm, I wonder what course will make me the most miserable – law it is!”

Studying law is hard work and really challenging, and it can be easy to get off track. If you’ve found that things have been getting difficult lately, take it seriously and do something about it – at the end of the day, law school should be a rewarding experience.

(And just for the record, I’m always happy to hear from you if you need it – will [at] youveenterdlawland.com).

If you found this helpful, please share it around!

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