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Kathryn Thompson

Kathryn Thompson

Normalizing Checking in with One Another and with Ourselves

By: Kathryn M. Thompson, Director of Academic Excellence and Teaching Professor,
Roger Williams University School of Law

Interpretation 303-5 states that “[t]he development of a professional identity should involve an intentional exploration of the values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to successful legal practice.”  Any of us who have struggled with our mental health understand that our first instinct is to isolate ourselves when the pangs of anxiety or the darkness of depression rear their heads. While society has come a long way since I first faced my own mental health challenges over twenty years ago, stigma and some shame still attach to these challenges, particularly in legal institutions where traditionally these challenges have been considered weaknesses.

Each year law school staff and faculty have an opportunity to choose what messages to prioritize in our early sessions with our incoming 1L students. I wrote this blog as I prepared for Orientation with our first-year students.  We greet our 1Ls each year in mid-August. Their fresh faces, revealing equal amounts of excitement and anxiety, remind me of the vital role law schools play in our students’ well-being. So many opportunities exist at this early moment to fan their excitement and curiosity and to alleviate their anxieties as they enter their first year of law school. Accomplishing this task while also being candid about the demands of law school and its potential impact on their mental health is an important goal for law school faculty and staff each year. Every year I try to balance teaching skills like case briefing and reading with the less obvious but equally necessary concepts of growth mindset and self-care. Law students need both types of information and while I know how to teach someone how to read a case and I have a decent presentation on growth mindset, I have struggled helping my students embrace self-care in law school. I am like most lawyers who never learned about wellness in law school and was forced to do so after I suffered a depressive episode in my mid-30s. It was only then that I worked with a therapist who helped me to understand the importance of “checking in” with myself regularly regarding my own mental health and only then did I become more able to embrace wellness practices. I am still working on embracing them.

Several forces at play in the first year of law school inhibit a student’s willingness and ability to reach out for help. First, the sheer novelty of the legal casebook method of learning and the Socratic method (however modified it may be) creates a challenge to prepare for classes. Add the legalese in many casebooks and the need to learn a whole new foundational vocabulary and students are hard-pressed to manage their time particularly come October when legal writing papers and midterms first hit. The sheer pace of law school can prevent them from being aware of the impact their sleep deprivation or anxiety is having on their studies. And the shame associated with being “the only one” who isn’t thriving does not encourage wellness practices. Again, without awareness of our own mental health status and an intentional reflection on our mental health, students – and lawyers – continue riding the roller-coaster without seeking help in the early stages before crisis hits.  Added to the workload is a law student’s concern (and misconception) that seeking counseling for their mental health challenges will lead to character and fitness issues when they seek to practice law. In this environment, helping students to embrace wellness practices requires an intentional effort to message to all students that the law school community values self-care and that wellness is a key component of a balanced life as a lawyer.

While the counseling center in a university (if a school is fortunate to have one), provides the expert counseling, efforts by law school staff and faculty in alliance with the student body can provide the fertile ground in which students embrace wellbeing practices such as meditation, exercise, deep breathing, therapy, and medication. There are steps that law schools can take early on in a students’ career to provide students “permission” and opportunity to incorporate wellness practices into their studies and, thus, their future legal practice. At RWU law over the past two or so years we have instituted some steps to foster our students’ awareness of their own mental health and to normalize pausing and reflecting on one’s own mental health at regular interviews throughout the course of the semester. One of these measures is called Early Alert: Proactive Check-Ins to Prevent Suicide/Violence and Promote Wellness. Through the initiative of Lorraine Lalli, Dean of Student Life and Operations, the law school partnered with Early Alert last year. Early Alert provides regular, confidential opportunities for students to pause and reflect on their wellness in various areas such as Sleep, Academics, Finances, Relationships, etc. Students who opt into the program report on their wellness on a scale of one to ten. A student who reports a score that shows the student is struggling in that area receives resources and a check-in over the next few days. Another measure the school has taken, which is more subtle but equally important is that we have intentionally prioritized wellness with our students early in the semester. During the first week of school, we bring all of our 1Ls together for a session on wellness. During this session we introduce our students to the Director of our Counseling Center who provides an overview of the counseling center’s services and also a brief explanation of the various reasons that students may seek counseling. 2L and 3L students attended that session this year to provide the message that the 1Ls have a network of support within the law school.

This year, Anna Arakelian, the President and founder of the RWU Law Mental Health Club spoke of an upcoming session the club had scheduled in September on Imposter Syndrome with Remmy Stourac, the author of “The Arsenal of Gratitude.”  “Whatever you’re feeling, we felt it, too,” Anna told the 1Ls who listened intently to her and to the two Academic Excellence Teaching Fellows, 3L Nellie Large, and 2L Stefanie Fischer who came to connect with the 1Ls that day. All three upper-level students encouraged the 1Ls to use Early Alert and to be honest about how they were feeling. If the alert asked them to rate their sleep on a zero to ten scale and they had a zero, put zero. “At first I would usually put the higher number because I didn’t want to say that I wasn’t doing well, but one day I was honest and the Alert provided me with helpful resources,” Anna told the students. All upper-level students spoke of finding time (whether thirty minutes or a whole day) to take breaks from law school and how important those breaks are to their ability to thrive in law school. Each wished they had paused more often during the 1L year to provide time for maintaining some balance in their lives.

Forging human connections with our students provides opportunity for authenticity and vulnerability. If students feel free to voice their anxieties and their self-doubts, whether with another student, a staff member, or faculty member, students are much more likely to implement wellness practices as a meaningful part of their lives as students and future lawyers. As Anna said to me after the session, “We’re all humans before we become lawyers.”

Please contact me at kthompson@rwu.edu with comments or questions.

Kathryn M. Thompson serves as the Director of Academic Excellence and Teaching Professor at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island.