The Osgoode Peer Support Centre (OPSC) sat down with Darryl Singer (’91), creator of the Alumni Support Program, to discuss this initiative which seeks to connect students facing wellness crises with legal professionals who have gone through similar experiences. This program was inspired by the Member Assistance Program and is a collaborative effort between the Osgoode Alumni Association and Osgoode Peer Support Centre.
OPSC: Could you tell the Osgoode student community a little about yourself?
Singer: At Osgoode, I was a shitty student and I surfed the curve all throughout law school. I didn’t really enjoy Osgoode at the time I was there because in those days, it was just an academic institution. After getting called in 1993, I went on to build a very successful career which sadly crashed and burned in 2009 because of my addiction. Fortunately, after closing down my practice for almost all of 2009 to focus on recovery, I was able to fully rebuild my career. I’ve since spent a great part of my life – since 2010 – of my recovery speaking and writing on my story of addiction and recovery and wellness. I wanted to bring that experience in a way that will impact the students at the law school.
OPSC: How has your perspective changed from the time you were in law school?
Singer: In first year, I remember thinking that I had never been in a group of people who seemed so perfect. Then looking at the lawyers, judges, and professors, it felt like everybody had their lives together. As a student, I thought that maybe it got easier as you go. But as you talk to these lawyers and judges who you think have it all together, you realize, “My God, their lives in so many ways are a disaster!” As a lawyer and a parent, I can say it isn’t any easier in your forties. The point is, everybody goes through something. With me it was an addiction. For others, it might be going through depression, not getting the job they want—or getting the job they want but burning out—or, for students, dealing with bad marks.
OPSC: What message would you like to pass on to the students of Osgoode?
Singer: You may feel, as a law student, that you don’t know what you’re doing here in school. I felt like an imposter at Osgoode, and that’s not an uncommon feeling among law school students and lawyers. No matter who you’re comparing yourself to, everybody’s got some shit that they’re going through.
OPSC: Is this where the Alumni Support Program fits in?
Singer: Yes—students need to realize that they should not be afraid to reach out to someone for help. They need to realize that someone (or everyone) ahead of them has gone through whatever they’re going through to some degree. From the perspective of the mentors in this program, we wish that we knew at your level what we know now, because we might have reached out to our predecessors. I wish there were these programs when I was at Osgoode, and think all the mentors in this program would say the same thing – to let us know that it’s okay and it will get better. It is a message of hope: no matter what despair you’re feeling, it’s going to be okay if you get help for it.
OPSC: So how would a student access the Alumni Supporter Program?
Singer: The student seeking help can go to the OPSC website, review the bios of the mentors, then fill out and submit the online form. Once they’re matched with the appropriate mentor, they’ll be given the contact information of the mentor, or they can ask for that the mentor reach out. The meeting can take place over phone, in person, and as frequently as they require.
OPSC: How confidential is this program?
Singer: The mentors are kept confidential until there’s a match—the bios are just numbered at this point. Students get strict confidentiality too; the OPSC won’t release their names to anyone other than to the mentors. Every discussion is strictly off the record, so students needn’t fear that if they come forward with sensitive information, the mentor will somehow let this information out to another. Unless emergency help is needed, it is a strictly 100%-confidential discussion.
OPSC: What kind of alumni are on the roster?
Singer: We’re presently a mix of sole practitioners; government, Bay Street and small firm lawyers; and judges. Almost everybody on the roster has gone through some sort of wellness crisis, including mental illness like bipolar disorder, drug and alcohol issues, sexual identity issues, or experienced discrimination and harassment. These mentors have weathered the storm and gone on to be successful, and will understand you. For example, if a student comes in with a substance abuse problem, that student can be matched with someone who has gone through it and recovered.
OPSC: To sum it up for the Osgoode community, what does the Alumni Program hope to achieve?
Singer: By creating this program, we hope to add another layer of assistance for students going through a mental wellness crisis. The key is, all of this works together—Osgoode’s wellness office, the OPSC’s Peer Support Program, the Member Assistance Program, this alumni support program—and the students can pick what works for them. But it’s an additional option with an additional perspective.
OPSC: Do you have any final notes to make?
Singer: If there’s even one student who approaches us in crisis and we help get him or her back on track, then we’ve succeeded. This is intended to be an ongoing program, and this is just year one, but the plan is that this sort of mentor program will become an entrenched part of law school culture so it’ll be here year after year. In a nutshell, the goal is to make the Osgoode experience for each student a healthier and more positive experience.