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Program focuses on mental health awareness for students

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Program focuses on mental health awareness for students

‘To have the Bar leaders talk about the importance of these issues at the lawyer level destigmatized it at the law student level’

Senior Editor

Why just have an awards ceremony when you can add a little human foosball?

When former Bar Board of Governors member Carl Schwait won the Bar’s G. Kirk Haas Humanitarian award last June, it came with a scholarship he could bestow on the law student of his choice.

With the Bar’s current emphasis on health and wellness for lawyers and law students, Schwait decided to leverage the award into an event highlighting the importance of the work-life balance in law school and after, featuring talks, discussion about the importance of mental health, and a generous splash of fun.

The result was a four-hour occasion where University of Florida law students, law school officials, and Bar leaders talked about stress in legal education and the profession, Bar leaders interacted with students about health and wellness, and concluding with a two-hour open air wellness festival featuring fun activities and access to physical and mental health resources.

When he started looking for a student for the Haas scholarship, Schwait said he and law school officials thought it would be a good reason to expand the ceremony to include the Bar’s mental health and wellness campaign. The final program was set with heavy input from law students.

The first hour included the scholarship presentation. Schwait selected Daniel-John (DJ) Sewell as the recipient. It started with a talk by law school Dean Laura Rosenbury, which included discussion of a recent student suicide. Immediate past Bar President Bill Schifino introduced Schwait, who serves on the Bar’s Special Committee on the Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers, and he presented the scholarship to Sewell and made the keynote address. Bar President Michael Higer closed the hour talking about the Bar’s health and wellness initiative.

“We ran out of chairs in the largest classroom, it was standing room only,” said Robert Birrenkott, associate dean for student placement and who help organized the event. “We were scrambling to add folding chairs in the back of the room and we ran out of those.

“That room has a seating capacity of 150 and we exceeded that. So the student response was overwhelming.”

At the conclusion of the hour, students were offered a “grab and go lunch.” Schwait, Higer, other Bar and law school officials, and student representatives took their lunches and met for an intense hour-long discussion of health and wellness in law school and the profession.

“To have the Bar leaders get up and talk about the importance of these issues at the lawyer level destigmatized it at the law student level,” Birrenkott said.

“We had some incredible stories concerning mental health of law students,” Schwait said. “It was very fruitful and we learned a lot.”

He was particularly struck by students’ apprehension when they are asked, as part of the bar exam application process, if they have sought mental health treatment.

“The students are concerned if they tell the bar they have been to a psychologist, they will be asked who it was and ‘can we get the records’ and it may result in a hearing and delay [in clearing the required background check],” Schwait said. He added, from his perspective, “Who’s healthier, the person who recognized they needed a little help and goes to talk to someone or the person who has that fear about the bar and never goes to anyone?”

The final two hours were outside at the law school’s quad and featured a variety of activities. There was a human foosball field, the law school’s yoga program was present, free massages were offered, and ice cream was available.

“We had representatives who were there who focused on everything from physical wellness to mental wellness,” Birrenkott said. “We wanted to have all those in one place.”

Plus, he said, it was a chance for law students to interact informally with the Bar leaders and lawyers.

Aside from Schwait, who is an adjunct professor at the law school, Schifino, and Higer, Board of Governors members Renée Thompson and Dori Foster-Morales (who chairs the Bar’s special committee), Young Lawyers Division President-elect Christian George, Bar Executive Director Joshua Doyle, Meshon Rawls, director of the law school’s Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic and president of the Eighth Judicial Circuit Bar Association, and YLD Board of Governors members Ryan Gilbert and Travis Mydock participated in the event.

“That was the first prong of the conversation, just having the conversation and destigmatizing and acknowledging that these are things that everyone struggles with,” Birrenkott said.

DANIEL-JOHN (DJ) SEWELL

DANIEL-JOHN (DJ) SEWELL speaks to University of Florida law students at an April 10 event at the law school that emphasized health and wellness for students and lawyers and where Sewell received the Bar’s annual G. Kirk Haas scholarship. Sewell was chosen by former Board of Governors member and UF adjunct professor Carl Schwait, who was awarded the Bar’s G. Kirk Haas Humanitarian Award last June by immediate Past Bar President Bill Schifino. Part of that award included selecting the scholarship recipient. Schwait said Sewell, who with three siblings was raised by a single mother in the Bahamas, is a member of the law school’s trial team, is a resident advisor at a UF dorm, and is a graduate instructor in the UF communications and journalism school. “Throughout his education, he has faced up to challenges with an incredible attitude of optimism and enthusiasm,” Schwait said of Sewell.

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