So, it’s about time for someone to indulge the honoured Obiter Dicta tradition of an editor addressing mental health issues in law school. That’s right, we’re about more than social commentary, student clubs and activities, being functionally owned by Davies LLP, and articles on how to annihilate your liver. Occasionally, we touch on the difficulties students experience trying to balance our studies, careers, personal lives, and for some of us, personal demons. And I’m going to talk about those demons, because they’re brutal bastards who can only be defeated by direct confrontation, and also to reiterate to those of you who struggle with such demons that you’re not alone. Because you’re not.
Let’s open with a little background. According to Statistics Canada, one in three Canadians will suffer from a mental health issue at one point in their lives. In first year, I recall being informed that the number was one in five, which might be because some people don’t consider substance abuse to be a mental health issue. I can’t recall, appropriately enough because I was wrapped up in my own mental health issues at the time, which may or may not have been comorbid with substance abuse issues. No matter how you cut it, over six million Canadians will endure mental health issues of some kind, and unsurprisingly, many of your fellow students are counted in that six (or ten) million. If you don’t go in with one, you might have one now. Being a law student is basically an anxiety disorder, after all.
I suppose I should emphasize that I, too, suffer from depression and general anxiety, and so have previous and current members of Obiter’s editorial staff. I almost dropped out in first semester because of my various issues, and only persevered because a number of people reached out to me in my darkest days. But mental health issues don’t really go away, and you don’t get better as much as you simply get by. Unless a toddler can choose to spend the rest of his or her life being chronically unhappy, mental illness isn’t a choice. It’s something you fight with your whole life, and even seeing every day as a victory just means each subsequent victory seems increasingly shallow. But there’s nothing else to do but keep going, and that’s what you do.
The point is that if you don’t suffer from a mental health issue, you will work with lawyers who do, and you will have clients who do. It’s not something you can avoid. You can get that Bay Street job where it’s Italian suits and Gehry architecture and wannabe law students doing all the menial crap that most lawyers actually do have to take care of on their own. One day, the seemingly “just quirky” partner will have a breakdown when the bourbon stops doing its job, or the temp working as a receptionist will have an anxiety attack and walk off before lunch, or an obsessive-compulsive client will drop you for some absurd reason (and then the whole office has an anxiety attack). It probably won’t be dramatic, but at the very least, mental health issues will leave you short-staffed at some point.
But as much as people with mental health issues will present problems to you in time, it’s important to have empathy for them. This does not entail indulging certain behaviours, like self-destructive tantrums or someone getting fall-down drunk at 11:00 in the morning. It just means remembering that such behaviours are less voluntary than one might initially suspect. It’s simply unfair to assume people want to be in pain, and that’s what a lot of the more extreme behaviours are: a cry for help in relieving emotional suffering. You can’t necessarily relieve it, and you shouldn’t even indulge it, but even being dismissive of it can be cruel. While a person can always choose how to act, if your judgment is clouded by crippling despair, how rational can you really be? If you think they’re causing you problems, imagine what life must be like for them.
Truth be told, I don’t really know what to say to people who can’t understand what it’s like to fight a war inside your own head damn near every day. I don’t even know what to say for people who fight that same war, only to lose more often than I do. I’ve spent my entire life trying to cope with despair, self-loathing, existential terror, and general nihilism. It’s taken me over 30 years to become content with a baseline of general malaise, and I wouldn’t want anyone to settle for it. But what could I say to someone who can’t even get out of bed in the morning, or someone with schizophrenia who honestly thinks demons are orchestrating his or her downfall? We can never fully understand what it’s like to be someone else. All we can do is try.
And on that note, I urge you, regardless of your mental health status, to be kind, generous, and merciful to your fellow human beings. As lawyers, we will see the worst that humanity has to offer, and there will be times when we all find ourselves saying “to hell with that guy,” but it’s important to remember that shouldn’t be the default. Empathy is not a weakness.
Oh, and good luck on your exams.
And don’t freak out if you get a couple of Cs. That just means you might be our next editor-in-chief.