Decide to ask for help—and ask the right person
Just as there is a myriad of mental health conditions (and indeed, varying ways in which mental health conditions can affect different individuals), there are also numerous ways of getting help.
However, there might be another step that you need to take before seeking help—allowing yourself to believe that help is what you need. Just as we convince ourselves that our funny-looking rash or persistent cough aren’t big enough issues to warrant a trip to the doctors, it can be tempting to dismiss prolonged stress or low mood as too trivial to report to someone.
Statistically, certain groups are more likely to avoid asking for help, even if they might recognise that they need it. According to the Mental Health Foundation, just one in four men feel that they can talk to family and friends at times of stress.
BAME people, too, don’t always feel able to speak to a mental health professional at times when they’re suffering: despite being “more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems”, they are also “more likely to disengage from mainstream mental health services, leading to social exclusion and a deterioration in their mental health”.
This isn’t to say that only people within these groups feel like they can’t ask for help—for many individuals, the thought of talking to a doctor or psychological worker about poor mental health can be daunting. But if you do belong to one of those groups, and you think you might have been struggling with poor mental health, it can be helpful to know that it’s common to feel like you don’t want to seek help.
For this reason, it’s important to think about what “asking for help” might mean. Perhaps you can identify immediately that you need to talk to a medical professional about a mental health condition. But before you do that, you might also want to talk to a family member or a trusted friend at university. Having someone in your life who knows that something is going on—even if you aren’t sure what exactly that something is, yet—can be a great comfort.
Workload and mental health are very closely interlinked: the increased workload of doing a law degree could make you feel low, anxious or overwhelmed, or on the flipside, feelings of anxiety or depression could, in turn, affect your concentration and attainment when it comes to university work. In this context, “asking for help” would be making someone within your department, such as your tutor, aware of your current struggles.
Whoever you turn to for help, the first step is to get past the stigma of asking for help. At this early point in your law career, it’s useful to know that lawyers do it all the time. In fact, organisations such as LawCare and Wellbeing at the Bar have been set up to cater to preserving and improving mental health across the legal sector.
Balance is everything
At university, it can feel as though you’re embroiled in a strict timetable of law fairs, vacation scheme applications, essay deadlines, society elections, exams, training contract applications, work experience placements… it’s enough to cause anyone fatigue.
These things will always be here. If you end up applying for a vacation scheme, or a committee position, or even doing your exams a year later than planned, it won’t be the worst thing in the world. If pushing yourself to do it all in one year is bringing you to the brink of mental collapse, then delaying things until next year could, in fact, be the best thing in the world for you.
It’s a lot of pressure. But you can park the pursuits that you can’t quite manage right now for another day, week, month or year. Law has been around since the Middle Ages. It’ll wait for you.
Ditch the stereotypes
The legal profession attracts people who are outgoing, competitive and eloquent—unfortunately, these words have become synonymous with strength, and far too many aspiring lawyers feel that to show weakness would be to compromise their career path.
Ultimately, being in tune with your mental health—knowing what your limits are, and being self-aware enough to act based on those limits—will only help your career. Firstly, a healthy person will be better able to do their job and enjoy it. Secondly, if you’ve interrogated your emotions and learned a bit about your own wellbeing, you’ll be better placed to help clients through difficult and stressful times.
It is also worth mentioning that the stereotype of the strong, unflappable lawyer is fast becoming obsolete. Law firms are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges people’s various mental health conditions. From mental health first aiders and flexible working situations, to partners speaking out about their own mental health conditions (and recovery), law firms look very different than they did ten years ago. The expectation that you be a law-robot isn’t there any more—so if you are struggling with a mental health condition at university, you should take steps to manage it rather than trying to hide it or wish it away.