The other day, I made a joke about not doing laundry and readings because #3LOL. But really, it’s because I spend my nights crying on the floor and passively hoping everything will end. Sometimes, I just sleep all day.
You might feel like you are alone. I definitely feel like I am. I do know, in an intellectual sense, that I’m not. You also hear often that you should talk about things when you feel like I do. I’ve spent a lot of my life not talking. Despite what they tell you in law school, it’s not always about reason. That’s the depression.
You may or may not know me. I’m around. We’ve almost certainly passed in the halls. We might even share a class or two. I probably smiled at you—I’m good at faking it.
To pull back the mask, I have to go back to high school. At sixteen, during my first depression, I didn’t have the words to explain it. It eventually went away. But it came back later, and worse. I spent over half my undergrad in the thralls of depression. Three hospitalizations; eight medications; one suicide attempt.
Nothing would get better, until it did again, for a time. I don’t know what made it better—I honestly preferred not to question it and certainly never to talk about it. The cosmos smiled on me and I came to U of T Law with a naïve hope to put it all behind me. I could be an entirely new person. No history, no baggage. And I was, for two wonderful years.
Of course, it didn’t last.
Along came my final year of law school, when the dark days of winter crept outside my window. I stopped eating for a while. Everything got harder. Nothing seemed like it mattered. The depression came back. When I do come to campus, I rush through the atrium to the sanctuary of the silent library, in the hopes no one will talk to me. Then I don’t have to put on the mask. I slouch in class, again hoping no one will look my way. Then I don’t have to put on the mask.
This past December, I wound up in an office asking about accommodations. I’d heard from friends both good and bad experiences. Mine was okay—rigid in terms of policy, but okay. I had the paperwork; I just had to make the final call. Despite a visit to CAMH emergency earlier that week, I wrote the exams. This is U of T Law. This is what we do, isn’t it? I got my exams written on time. This is excellence.
It’s really not. I made a choice to put the exams ahead of my health. Sure, I avoided awkward conversations about deferring and I kept those two weeks without law school dangling over my head. I even earned excellent grades in the end—but I also almost died.
Was it worthwhile? It’s hard to say no with the benefit of hindsight, but the markers of paradigmatic law school success that I’ve achieved don’t tell the story of my happiness and mental well-being.
You’re well aware that law school can be stressful. It is. But how much of it is self-imposed? How much of it is necessary? I don’t claim to have the answers, but these are questions worth contemplating. I’m glad to see the conversations at the law school this year—about the Mental Health and Wellness Committee, the draft Strategic Mental Health plan, the art showcase. We should continue these discussions and critically consider law school culture, law school policies, and the discourse surrounding mental health.
It’s impossible to say if my experience would be the same elsewhere. This is part of who I am. I’ve certainly made both good and bad choices along the way. But the environment matters.
Law school culture and policies affect us all and should not be characterized as immutable realities. There is an unfortunate tendency at this law school to look at accommodations not as promoting an equal playing field, but as an unfair advantage that undermines the integrity of the grading curve. As an institution that founds its identity on excellence, we have an opportunity to change and demonstrate excellence in accommodations. This means accepting that accommodations for mental illness are legitimate, and have a legitimate place in our grading system and at our law school. This means fostering a culture where we can speak frankly about our mental health with our peers, professors, and administrators. This would be excellence.
To the law school community: please keep talking. We can do better.
To anyone who feels like me: please reach out. Talk to your friends; ask for accommodations; seek medical help. We are not alone.