Ultra Vires


Words v Actions: The Case of Mental Health at U of T Law

The Faculty’s actions do not live up to their words

Law school is known to be a challenging and competitive environment. Incoming law students are warned to brace themselves for three years of endless readings, little sleep, and no social life. These struggles are seen as a rite of passage within the legal community. This mentality stems from the idea that if you survive the crushing pressure of law school, you will be ready to take on any challenge in your career. The legal community is becoming increasingly aware of the harms of this ideology, particularly when it comes to mental health. What use is a new lawyer, freshly graduated from Canada’s top law school, if they are burnt out? 

The University of Toronto Faculty of Law has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a champion for mental health and wellness. The Faculty’s JD Student Mental Health Strategic Action Plan reflects a well-thought-out mental health and wellness policy that would benefit students. The Strategic Plan explicitly states that the Faculty identifies mental health as a priority and asserts that their objective is “to take a systemic approach to creating a supportive and inclusive environment for students…. [that] includes understanding the underlying stressors associated with poor student mental health, [emphasis added].”

Unfortunately, the Faculty’s actions do not live up to their words. The school has consistently refused to stand by the systemic approach to tackling mental health that they emphasized in their Strategic Plan, despite pleas from students. In the same breath, the Faculty claims to care about students’ mental health while propagating the systems that are detrimental to it. 

A Pattern of Undue Stress 

On December 15, 2021—the evening before three final exams were set to take place—students received an email saying that exams would be shifting to an online model. The school’s communication on this issue was vague and inconsistent. Students were left in the dark about what their exams would look like, whether they would be rescheduled, and how students could be accommodated. 

One student who asked for clarification regarding wifi connectivity and printing capabilities was met with a dismissive response that did not answer the questions asked. When another student asked if any extra time would be allotted for technological issues and to print exams at home, the Faculty responded that they should read the questions while waiting for the exam to print. 

Unfortunately, these are not isolated examples. The Faculty has demonstrated a pattern of refusing to address the underlying causes of students’ poor mental health.  

In one class, students were assigned 190 pages of readings in one week, which is above the amount recommended by the school’s own academic handbook. When students reached out to Associate Dean Christopher Essert about this breach, he dismissed the volume of readings as reasonable and emphasized that the guidelines were not enforceable due to academic freedom concerns.  

This was discouraging to students in the class who reported feeling “overwhelmed” and “hopeless.” Associate Dean Essert’s response was particularly disappointing, especially in the face of student consultations by the Dean’s Mental Health Committee’s finding that reading volume is one of the leading contributors of poor mental health among students. 

Even if professors followed the guidelines, students could have up to 600 pages of readings a week—an unrealistic and unmanageable expectation. As SLS Vice-President Student Life Vanshika Dhawan (3L) remarked, “It’s simply not possible to complete every single reading in 1L, given the number of co-curricular and job-related de facto requirements… and retain a good mental and physical well-being.” The Faculty’s failure to take action on this issue signals to students that its stance on mental health is purely performative. 

The Paradox of Programming

At times, the Faculty’s attempts at helping students has aggravated mental health issues even further. In January, the school scheduled a mandatory “mental health and wellness” training session for 1Ls during their lunch block on the same day that 1L recruit applications were due. Most students had back-to-back classes that day and were already overwhelmed. Ironically, this mental health and wellness session harmed students more than it helped. One student shared that his mental health would have benefited from a break from staring at a screen and the time to eat lunch. 

The mandatory mental health session highlights the school’s tendency to favour individualistic, small-scale solutions instead of standing by the systemic approach to tackling mental health that it preaches. When students shared that they felt overwhelmed by the timing of the session, it was recommended they “put on a pair of jeans,” “take a walk,” or “brush their teeth with their non-dominant hand” to promote reflection. 

This is not the only time the Faculty has stressed individual-focused solutions to mental health challenges. They also refer students to their embedded counsellor, hold mental health office hours, and offer Mindful Moments Yoga. While mental health strategies like these can be helpful to an extent, their impact is minimal when compared to the effects of more holistic and systemic changes. The challenges facing students’ mental health at law school are serious and deeply ingrained; they must be addressed at both an individual and systemic level. 

Actions Over Words

In general, the school’s approach to mental health continues to be reactive rather than proactive. The Faculty accepts that the law school’s systems are designed to elicit poor mental health outcomes for students. Their mental health and wellness programming attempts to improve student mental health once it has already deteriorated. Instead, they should identify and eliminate the factors that are causing poor mental health in the first place. 

A proactive approach to tackling mental health would lead to better outcomes because students wouldn’t constantly be trying to recover from poor mental health. As with any other health issue, it is more effective to prevent a problem from occurring than attempting to resolve it once it has already occurred. And if the problem does occur, it is best to treat the cause, not just the symptoms. 

In general, the Faculty would benefit from listening to students’ concerns regarding mental health policies and programming. They should address the underlying causes of student stress, such as unmanageable readings, uncompassionate policies for remote learning, lack of communication when it comes to changes due to COVID-19, and the unhealthy mentality surrounding grades and recruits. 

Over the past couple of weeks, the Faculty has taken a step in the right direction by announcing that they will be allowing recorded lectures and hard drive access on final exams. This being said, there is still a lot of work to be done. The Faculty should ensure that its programs and initiatives reflect its stated commitment to addressing the systemic causes of poor mental health. 

  After all, actions speak louder than words. 

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