When It’s More Than Exam Stress: Free, Discreet, and Easy-to-Access Support in the Legal and Local Community

If you’re struggling with a bit more than just “exam stress,” you’re not alone. When I applied to law school, I had been dealing with mental illness for over a decade. I was prepared to be stressed, challenged and overwhelmed. I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly isolated I would feel—shame, self-doubt and stigma are a heady mix, especially when you’re a law student struggling with their mental health.

I survived, of course. I cried in Alexis’s office, saw a great doctor at the on-campus health centre, received accommodations where I needed them, and did a bit of yoga. But what I really needed was connection—someone I could speak with who deeply understood how I was feeling, who wouldn’t judge me for struggling, and who wouldn’t require me to sign up three weeks in advance for a fifty-minute appointment.

Below, I’ve outlined some options to find support during the exam season and beyond. The services I’ve included are free, confidential, easy to access, and usually have no waitlists. Many are also services that you can access discreetly, even if you’re sitting in the middle of the law library. You don’t need to have depression, anxiety or any formal mental health diagnosis to access these services—it’s enough to just be having a bad day, feeling a bit overwhelmed, or need someone safe to talk to.

The LSO Member Assistance Plan (MAP), via Homewood Health

You can access a lot of great (free!) services through the Member Assistance Program, including counselling services offered in person, by phone, through live online chat, by email, and through video chat. While they will match you with a licensed therapist, you can also change therapists if it isn’t the right fit or request a therapist with a specific background or expertise. For example, at least one therapist, Doron Gold, previously worked as a lawyer. He also runs the LSO peer-support program, which I’ll talk about below.

When you sign up with MAP, they will ask you for your name, as well as your birth date and other information. This information isn’t relayed to the Law Society, and Homewood doesn’t check against an internal list—it’s considered personal, health-related information and is gathered for that purpose. While you are generally given six or eight sessions to see a therapist about a given issue, you can access the service again for other or ongoing issues.

Peer Support

The Law Society runs a peer support program, which is a fantastic way to connect with lawyers who have their own lived experience with mental health and/or substance-use challenges. It’s a great way to access support, but it also provides you with someone that you can ask for honest opinions and judgement-free practical advice about navigating the workplace and this profession, especially when there are always some very real concerns about stigma around mental health and addictions.

There are also some fantastic options in the community, many of which offer not only one-on-one support with a trained peer, but also offer support groups, activity clubs, assistance with finding work and housing, and a whole range of services. Progress Place, CMHA Toronto, and Stella’s Place (for young adults 1629) are three examples. While some programs offered by these organizations require intake, registration, and waitlists, there are also many drop-in options that you can participate in without commitment, self-disclosure, or even providing your full name. Even if you’re not looking for direct support or just want to check things out, you can drop by Progress Place or Stella’s Place to get some work done in a positive, health-aware environment. Between the two organizations, they also offer programs including free fitness and yoga classes, art classes, and cooking classes—it can be a great way to get outside the “law school bubble” and relieve some stress with other people who “get it”.

Online, there are informal peer support options that include anonymous communities on platforms like Reddit or Discord, Facebook groups, or other online forums. For one-on-one sessions with a formally trained peer supporter, you can access Progress Place’s Warmline or Stella’s Place’s BeanBagChat for those aged 1629 with a Toronto area code (app on Android & iOS, web version coming soon) [disclosure: I provide relief services as an online peer supporter for BeanBagChat].

Drop-In Counselling

While there are a lot of organizations that offer free long-term, structured therapy, many of these programs require you to go through a registration or intake process, spend some time on a waitlist, or be seeking support for specific issues with your mental health or addictions.  In the past couple of years, many places have begun to offer drop-in counselling. While these services typically operate on a first-come, first-served basis and have limited capacity, they’re an easy way to speak with a professional immediately, without having to do a great deal of planning, and at no cost.

Organizations offering drop-in counselling include:

If you’re interested in any of these options, I recommend contacting the organization to confirm the current service dates & times before visiting.

Distress and Crisis Services

If you’re feeling overwhelmed to the point that you feel like your personal health and safety are at risk, it’s important to seek professional help as soon as possible.  You can call 911 or visit your closest hospital emergency room.

Another great option is the Gerstein Centre, which is available 24/7 by calling 416-929-5200.  In addition to telephone support, they have a mobile crisis team that can come to you, and they also have short-term residential services if you are in crisis and need a safe place to stay until you feel safe again.  The Gerstein Centre is a voluntary service and they won’t force you to stay or access treatment.

You can also reach out to the Distress Centres of Toronto by calling 416-408-4357 (416-408-HELP) which is available 24/7. They also offer text and online support between 2pm and 2am either through text at 741741, or online at torontodistresscentre.com/ontx.

*Alumni Contributor, Class of 2015, who, in addition to her law degree, studied social work and has volunteered with distress lines and other mental health services.