Words by Liz Barrett, Mature Students Representative for The Dickson Poon School of Law. This post originally appeared on Liz’s personal blog, Silks and the City. The original post can be found here.
As part of the ongoing student/young lawyer wellbeing series on this site, I am very excited to say that Elizabeth Rimmer, the CEO of LawCare, agreed to answer some questions about student mental health, how to support your wellbeing and strategies for when you’re struggling. If you would like to explore the support LawCare offers, click here, and read on for some nuggets from Elizabeth…
This piece is also especially relevant today, Thursday 1st March 2018, as we mark University Mental Health Day, a national campaign to focus efforts on promoting the mental health of people who live, work and study in Higher Education settings.
- Where did the idea for LawCare come from?
LawCare has its origins in the Lawyers Support Group, a group of lawyers from all walks of the profession in recovery from alcohol addiction. Formed in 1983, the group met regularly in London.
In 1995, partly prompted by a letter in the Gazette, Charles Elly, President of the Law Society, set up a working party to look into helping members of the profession affected by alcohol misuse. SolCare, as it was then called, was established in April 1997 and Barry Pritchard, a solicitor living in North Wales who was a recovering alcoholic with 13 years sobriety, became the first co-ordinator. He was given a modest grant and a surplus-to-requirements Law Society computer, which he set up in a corner of the kitchen in his renovated farmhouse. During that first year, he took 60 calls from lawyers with alcohol problems. Members of LSG were among those who became the first LawCare volunteers, offering ongoing personal support to these callers.
LawCare has now grown to cover all the jurisdictions in UK and Ireland and all legal professions, support staff and families; supporting wellbeing and mental health. We are also trying to raise awareness about student mental health. Wellbeing has become especially important in recent years, as people have become more aware of mental health issues and the fact that last year, the Health and Safety Executive found that lawyers were the third most stressed profession.
Yes, we do receive calls from students, pupils and trainees. The figures vary between countries and professions, but last year we received between 9% to 20% of the proportion of our calls from students, pupils or trainees. We have seen a rise in phone calls, and we are working with our partners across the legal community to raise awareness about why mental health matters.
Law can be a pressured industry to work in with long hours and a heavy workload which can lead to stress and mental health issues. LawCare is here for all legal professionals and through our helpline, we offer one-on-one peer support and we also work with employers to promote wellbeing at work. We would encourage anyone in the legal community worried about a professional or personal issue not to stay silent and to contact us for support if needed.
Call the helpline on 0800 279 6888 in the UK and 1800 991 801 in Ireland.
- Do you feel there is enough support for students and young lawyers to aid wellbeing?
My sense is that programmes to promote wellbeing are becoming more common and this is something we encourage and welcome. There are growing initiatives around student wellbeing. For example, BPP and University of Law have started providing more support and resources to students.
In Ireland for students taking the equivalent of the LPC they have a module called ‘Shrink Me, I’m a Lawyer’ – where students get a session to help them understand some of the pressures they may face in practice and the strategies they can use to help. We would like to see a mandatory module on wellbeing at all law schools in the future. This could take the form of signposting – teaching students to recognise the signs that their wellbeing may be compromised and what positive steps they can take to maintain their wellbeing. I think it’s important to flag up that understanding your own wellbeing can help you thrive and be the best lawyers you can be. What should be key in any education programme is to frame this positively. We want to encourage the legal community to be open about mental health which will make it easier for those in need of help to seek it.
- We are heading into exam and revision season – what do you think helps people most during this time?
Your vocational, professional legal training is the first step towards what we hope will be a rewarding and successful career, but many law students sometimes feel daunted by the pressures of legal study, sweating about deadlines and worrying about exams.
If you are experiencing stress or anxiety, or feeling low, listen to what your body and mind are saying and try the following:
- Talk to teaching staff or your Personal Tutor
- Organise your study time and deadlines into a manageable plan
- Go to your GP and get an MOT, as you would for your car, to see if there is any underlying condition that could be treated
- Consider the counselling that may be offered by your college, law school or university
- Become more self-aware, and recognise when you have a stress trigger – the symptoms are different for each of us – and immediately after the episode take a few minutes to recover. This prevents the body storing stress chemicals, minimising their impact, and also helps you to avoid being wound up like a spring at the end of the day
- Take time for exercise and activities that you enjoy; long hours are sometimes unavoidable, but don’t let them be the norm
- Call LawCare: talking through what is worrying you can make you feel better
These feelings can develop at any time of the year, and not just during exam season, so it’s always important to stay tuned-in to your mind and body, and acknowledge what is happening to you. And if you notice someone on your course or a friend who may be struggling to cope, have a chat with them and let them know there is support.
- There’s a trend going around that daily meditation helps maintain one’s mental health and stress levels, a lot of my friends have tried to practice mindfulness as a way to help deal with stress, and I wrote a piece on how I felt yoga is beneficial for mind, body and soul especially for lawyers. With so many ‘trends’ around – what do you think is really the best for creating good mental health and a sense of wellbeing?
It’s all about trying things out and what works best for you – and these are all great options. We created a top ten list with some suggestions.
- Law is highly competitive – do you feel it is important to cultivate a community of supportive people within the industry to counteract this?
It is absolutely essential. Data from America suggests that the biggest issue for lawyers seems to be stigma; that coming forward for help will be perceived as a sign of weakness.
We want to get the legal community talking about mental health – encouraging those who feel able to share their stories of mental health concerns, to challenge the stigma and make it easier for those in need of support to find it.
There are also some incredible initiatives, like This Is Me – run by Lord Mayor of London Appeal, and the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England and Wales has just launched a guide on resilience, which we recommend students read.
- In the modern world, where we are all rushing about – do you think it is harder to find time to look after ourselves? What would be a way to make time?
It can feel like we are too busy to look after ourselves; when we are busy with work we tend to ‘chuck out’ the things that we feel aren’t work-focussed, like socialising with friends or getting home in time for a meal with the family. They are often the first to go. Whereas these are actually the sorts of activities that can help us manage stress and improve wellbeing. I think we sometimes don’t value them enough, and recognise what a difference they can make.
If you think about professional athletes – they have a huge team around them. These teams help the athlete to rest, eat well, exercise and recover – as well as train. Think about how you will build your team around you, and find the time to make social connections.
- You run campaigns to help reduce stigma and raise awareness of mental health. What can we, as students and junior lawyers, do to help? And if we, as students and young lawyers, wanted to get involved in LawCare to help others, how can we do that?
We are looking at expanding our volunteer roles, and maybe creating ambassadors for LawCare, and students will be key to this. We are looking at how we can widen our reach. Keep an eye on our website for opportunities.
- Law students are often perfectionists at heart. Do you have any advice on how to let perfectionist tendencies go?
It can be hard to admit to making a mistake, or to admit that you may be struggling – but talking really helps. We advocate sharing with your friends, family and fellow students that you may have made a mistake or are feeling overwhelmed, it can be reassuring to discover that you are not the only one who feels this way. It can be hard to let go of perfectionist tendencies, but opening up helps.
- If you could ‘prescribe’ one remedy for students who are suffering with stress, what would it be?
To talk to someone about how you’re feeling. This starts you on a journey to help and reassures you that you’re not alone. Many people feel the pressure of what they’re doing; this is not uncommon. Making that time to look after yourself is also key: enjoy yourself, eat well, and get some sleep!
As this is the last point in the article, it just leaves me to say a big thank you to Elizabeth for taking the time to talk with me. I think the main takeaways are: you are not alone, it’s important to share how you’re feeling, there are support systems both in and out of university/the workplace and it is vital to take the time to look after yourself – however busy you feel.
A little more about Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare: Elizabeth has been managing and developing charities in the mental health sector for over 20 years. She joined LawCare in September 2014 from the Institute of Group Analysis, a membership and training organisation for group psychotherapists. Before that she headed up Alzheimer’s Disease International, a worldwide federation of Alzheimer Associations. Elizabeth started her working life as a solicitor specialising in clinical negligence, practicing at Leigh Day.
LawCare, a registered charity, supports and promotes good mental health and wellbeing throughout the legal community in the UK and Ireland. LawCare provides emotional support, information about the mental health issues that can affect lawyers and works to raise awareness about why mental health matters. www.lawcare.org.uk