Volume 7, Issue 5
Someone once told me that law is a fast moving train that waits for nobody. Even first year students, who are still somewhat bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, will be able to appreciate its relentless nature.
Since starting law school, my life has never been busier (and my soul never more ashen). Frantically trying to organise my limited waking hours between my studies, work and internship usually leaves a solid three-and-a-half minutes per week to feel a pang of guilt for diligently neglecting my family, friends, puppy and sanity.
Yet paradoxically, it was during this most hectic and intense time of my life that I came to appreciate what Pico Iyer, a famed travel writer, calls ‘the art of stillness’. His novel, Adventures in Going Nowhere, explores the lives of those who practice stillness daily and who have gained an unmatched richness from it – from Leonard Cohen to Tibetan monks.
How many of you are reading this and simultaneously planning your week’s grocery shopping, or (for you lucky souls still enveloped by the warm comforting embrace that is living at home) contemplating the next episode of House of Cards?
The benefits of mindfulness – being fully present in the current moment – are vast. It can increase concentration, ameliorate stress and anxiety and improve overall mental health and wellbeing. Practicing mindfulness means engaging with ‘the here and now’ and letting go of any past memories or future worries, plans and thoughts. This can be achieved through meditation, with a concentrated focus on breath, bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions.
Leonard Riskin, an American law professor specialising in mindfulness and ADR, is a dedicated proponent of the benefits of mindfulness for lawyers and law students. He found that the detachment one can achieve through mindful observations of emotions and thoughts can lead to increased patience and non-judgmental discernment in future law practice. Mindfulness, he found, encourages lawyers to ‘see things as they actually are’ through a lens of clarity and equanimity.
Research at UNSW has shown that the highly competitive, pressure-cooker environment that is law school leads to 1 in 3 law students suffering from a mental illness. However, according to the most recent Law Student Wellbeing Survey conducted at Melbourne Law School in 2013, the figures here are far higher. The survey found that 49 per cent of respondents recorded a score of moderate or higher on at least one scale: depression, anxiety or stress. These results were similar to the findings in the 2011 and 2012 wellbeing surveys. Students suffering from anxiety scored highly in the following areas: not coping with workload; assessment stress; perfectionism and worry about job prospects.
But I think the most alarming finding of the survey was a pervasive lack of knowledge surrounding issues of mental health. In particular:
· Of the students experiencing high levels of psychological distress, 48 per cent said that they do not have as much information about mental health and wellbeing as they need.
· Between one quarter and one third of students would not know where or when to refer a friend in Law who was experiencing problems with stress, anxiety or depression.
· Of the students experiencing high levels of psychological distress, 53 per cent were not confident that they could identify when their stress or anxiety levels are too high.
The survey noted that an improvement in the areas of positive relations with others and self-acceptance would likely reduce law students’ overall psychological distress. Mindfulness, and other CBTs (cognitive behaviour therapies) can be a useful first step in addressing these disturbing statistics and facilitating healthy relationships with others and with ourselves.
According to Kate van Hooft, MLS Wellbeing Adviser, there is a direct correlation between assessment stress, worrying about the prospective job market and mental health issues. She believes that at the law school, assessments are the ‘only readily available metric by which you can compare yourself to others and then work out how likely you are to get a job later’, despite it being a ‘flimsy’ and destructive one at that.
Furthermore, the increasingly competitive and hostile job market has seen mental health issues amongst law students contemplating bleak future career prospects soar. In regards to the sizeable number of students losing connection to their selves and initial motivations for studying law, Ms van Hooft contends that ‘there’s no antidote other than for every student to one day realise on their own that their marks were only a small part of the entire tapestry of their humanity’. And although mindfulness cannot solve all the world’s problems, the clarity and perspective it affords one’s mentality is a certain stepping-stone to one day realizing the above.
‘I don’t have the time’ is the most common excuse for avoidance. Firstly, that is a lie – if you spent a few less minutes on Facebook each day would your social life wilt and die? Of course not: because it has already. Secondly, apps like The Smiling Mind and Headspace – which have meditations as short as 5 minutes to as long as 45 – make it easy for the time poor to tune in. If you believe that you do not have a spare five minutes in your day to engage with the present moment, you probably need mindfulness in your life now more than ever.
So, is your mind full? Or it is mindful?
Stephanie McHugh is a second-year JD student