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5 ways to make your campus more mental health friendly

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Mental Health Day

According to a 2014 Survey of Law Student Well-Being, almost 90 percent of law students had a drink of alcohol in the last 30 days and more than 20 percent admitted to binge drinking in the past two weeks.  While lawyers and future lawyers alike focus on obtaining justice for others, they forget to tend to their own needs.

Law school is the time to teach healthy work habits and it starts with students and their law schools. Here are five ways your campus can promote physical and mental prosperity on your campus.

Find Speakers with Personal Experience

No matter how damning statistics may be, it is very difficult to put the lessons they impart into practice.  As a first-year law student, the number of statistics, anecdotes, and warnings associated with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and addiction can be overwhelming. Seeking out a guest speaker on any of these topics related to mental health can help even the most invincible law student seriously consider the latent dangers of the legal profession.

During my first year at the University of South Dakota Law School, the administration brought in a speaker to discuss his own struggle with alcoholism and addiction. David Whitesock works with Face It Together, a group of entrepreneurs that seek to change communities, improve recovery support, strengthen employee health, and measure addiction wellness.  His last drink was in July of 2005, in part due to his involvement in a 24/7 sobriety program.

The story he shared with us detailed social anxiety, depression, and other relatable aspects of life in law school.  As his story progressed, it became clear just how easily hidden the struggle with addiction could be. Not only was he seeking higher education throughout his struggle with addiction, but he had a successful radio career and developed cutting edge podcasting technology before podcasting existed as we know it today.

“Many would categorize my addiction history as being ‘functional’. I failed out of college three times, but excelled in a radio career for more than seven years. A true assessment is that I was barely functional, holding on for dear life.” Mr. Whitesock’s advice to anyone with a struggling friend or classmate is to first vocalize concern for the friend’s health, and then to know what you would say if they say they’re ready for help. Thanks Mr. Whitesock for sharing your story with us!

Start a Mental Health Centered Group

Inspired by the University of St. Thomas Law School, students at the University of South Dakota started a group called the “Pursuit of Happiness,” which works as a sort of mental health committee for our Student Bar Association.  Brittany Dingman, the Mental Health Liaison and 8th Circuit Mental Health Chair for the Law Student Division, discussed her school’s decision to start the original “Pursuit of Happiness” club which is now known as Wellness in Practice.”

“There was a need for a student-run mental health organization within our law school community. Law school culture is not always healthy” said Dingman. The group’s aim is to first decrease stigma around discussing mental health issues while opening communication channels about mental health struggles. Thereafter the goal becomes promotion of dialogue through programming.  They host an event known as the “Barista Review” an alternative to the ever-popular alcohol focused “Bar Review.”

The University of South Dakota School of Law recently took the lead of Brittany’s school in implementing a mental health focused group.  During finals, last semester the group promoted good behaviors like exercise and being friendly with raffle prizes.  Samantha Berglin of the USD Pursuit of Happiness compares the group to other groups around the law school: “While I participate in other groups like the Criminal Justice Education Project, my involvement in the Pursuit of Happiness Club is both different and refreshing.  Our sole purpose is to create a positive environment to promote mental health, which can be a great change of pace in organization involvement!”

Listen to Your Body

Mental health awareness is far more comprehensive than reacting to negative mental health issues!  Promoting good behaviors for mental health is just as important as reacting to the mental health issues that plague the legal profession.  Meaghan Geraghty is both a registered nurse and a law student at the Nebraska College of Law.  “Despite what you might think in the moment, nothing is more important than taking care of yourself.” She recommends that you not only take care of your body first, but develop an emotional resilience against negative or competitive environments.  Adequate sleep, eating the right foods and making it a priority to simply take care of your body’s needs are the foundation of her recommendations as a healthcare professional.

She also recommends building a solid foundation of friendship and activities outside of law school.  Look for non-law related activities, and have that friend outside of the law school that you can talk to no matter what about things that don’t include law school or the law.  As far as the emotional resilience she referenced, she said: “Ignore any negative comments around you that wrongfully tell you that unless you perform a certain way, you won’t succeed. This is not true. No matter what your grades are or how you did on any exam, you set the stage for your success. Never accept someone telling you that you aren’t good enough.”

Invest in Tools that Aid in Introspection

Gandhi’s teaching about changing yourself to change the world is very applicable to the study and practice of law.  No matter your intended practice area, it’s likely that you’ve been in a law centered situation where you think you understand a situation perfectly but in hindsight may have misunderstood or inferred incorrect things.  This same concept is applicable to how we view our own strengths and weaknesses, both in practice and in our personal lives.

Investing in tools like the Myers Briggs personality test or StrengthsFinder can help you and your classmates work towards personal mastery.  Often in the legal profession we forget that our work in practice or as classmates often take place in very tense or stressful situations, which can lead to conflicts.  If we all take steps to better understand ourselves and even those around us, the negative environments could slowly become more positive environments that promote positive mental health.  Self mastery leads not only to better relationships and environments, but environmental awareness as well.

Be your own best advocate

As future lawyers, we would all like to roll up our sleeves and get to work helping those who desperately need it or are in search of justice.  While this is noble, the best reminder of how we ought to approach self-care lies in the instructions we hear before a flight: “put your own mask on before assisting others.” Taking care of yourself now is an investment in taking care of your future colleagues, clients, and your family.  Be well!

For more information check out the ABA Mental Health Toolkit!

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Morgan Nelson Morgan is currently a 2L at the University of South Dakota. She serves as the 8th Circuit Governor on the Law Student Division Board of Governors, which includes work with all law schools within South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, and Missouri. She enjoys long walks on the beach.