UF students crave more health and wellness resources
REPRESENTATIVES OF THE STUDENT Education & Admissions to the Bar Committee and the Bar’s Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism recently met with law students at the University of Florida to talk about the Bar’s efforts to promote health and wellness and lift the persistent cloud that clings to mental illness and listen to student’s concerns. From the right are Jason Silver, chair of the Student Education & Admissions to the Bar Committee; Adriannette Williams, assistant director of the Center for Professionalism; and Gainesville lawyer Ron Kozlowski.
UF students crave more health and wellness resources
The Florida Bar campaign to promote health and wellness and to lift the stigma that clings to mental illness sparked a spirited discussion at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
A recent mid-week forum featured panelists from the Student Education & Admissions to the Bar Committee and Adriannette Williams, assistant director of the Bar’s Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism.
After some 40 students piled into a second-floor lecture hall and had their fill of sandwiches and cookies, committee Chair Jason Silver broke the ice by assuring the audience that the Bar campaign is genuine.
“This past couple of years, The Florida Bar has really decided to take it on,” Silver said. “As chair of the committee, I felt that we really wanted to emphasize that on law school campuses.”
Some participants described the emotional toll of raising infants and toddlers while trying to attend lectures, meet deadlines, and study for exams. Others discussed the challenge of studying law for a second career after already launching a business.
UF Law Professor Deborah “Deb” Cupples, a member of the Student Education & Admissions to the Bar Committee, said the school added bar exam prep classes to reduce the fear of the unknown.
“Preparation is one of the keys to being less stressed,” Cupples said. Cupples is a big believer in yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, stress-relieving activities that are available on campus.
But Crystal Ellison, a second-year law student and president of the Mental Health Law Association, said a full-time resource counselor the school provides through the Student Affairs Office, and the services of the University of Florida’s Counseling and Wellness Center, aren’t enough.
Ellison, who has been diagnosed with depression, found herself in crisis during her first year in law school.
“I wasn’t taking care of myself and I ended up becoming suicidal throughout the year, and that’s how that manifested for me,” Ellison said. “I know that currently there are several students on the campus who have reached out to me because I shared my story, and they are dealing with the same things right now — so it’s really common here.”
Ellison attends a peer-support group that meets every Wednesday to discuss a wide range of issues.
“It always changes depending on who shows up, but sometimes we’ll talk about things that are going on in our life that have nothing to do with school,” she said. “One thing we find that is really helpful is to talk to other people who really understand what you’re going through.”
Even when professional counseling is available, many students are apprehensive about making appointments, said second-year student John Thomas, events and logistics co-chair for the YLD’s Law Student Division.
An organizer for the forum, Thomas used the acumen he gained working in the high-tech industry to help the Mental Health Law Association conduct an anonymous online survey at the law school.
It showed 35 of 82 respondents felt they needed mental-health treatment but avoided it because they were afraid they would have to report it to bar examiners during the admissions process.
“Students are not getting the mental-health treatment that they needed because they are afraid of the bar disclosure,” Thomas said. “And they felt that possibly the administration was not interested in addressing it by providing the resources that are needed here on campus.”
The survey results and forum comments suggest that a recent effort by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, which oversees the admissions process, has yet to sink in.
“No law student should avoid mental-health counseling” because they are worried about the admissions process, said South Florida bankruptcy attorney Scott Baena when he assumed the FBBE chairmanship in November.
Baena pointed to a recent posting under the FAQ portion of the FBBE’s website that claims examiners look favorably on applicants who are willing to seek counseling when they think they need help.
“The board supports applicants seeking mental-health treatment, and views effective treatment from a licensed professional as enhancing the applicant’s ability to meet the essential eligibility requirements to practice law.”
Another posting assures applicants that they don’t have to report routine visits to a mental-health counselor to deal with the “stress” and “anxiety” of law school, (or for out-of-state applicants, the stress and anxiety of practicing law.)
However, the FAQ still reminds applicants that they are obliged to report “treatment for” or “reoccurrence of” certain “thought disorders” such as schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, and “mood disorders” such as bipolar and major depressive disorders that could “impair an applicant’s ability to practice law.”
Ita Neymotin, regional counsel for the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, Second District, and a committee member, said lawyers must be vetted thoroughly because they have enormous power to harm the public.
“I just don’t want it to be forgotten that as attorneys you will be entrusted with a client’s money, a client’s property, and sometimes, a client’s life,” Neymotin said. “As an attorney, your responsibility to the public is higher than most other professions.”
Second-year UF Law student and GatorLaw ACLU President Sloane Henry reminded the round-table participants that most studies show that people diagnosed with mental illness are more likely to be a crime victim than a perpetrator.
“We have conflated trustworthiness with mental health,” Henry said. “It doesn’t mean that you are more likely to pay your rent with a client’s money, or that you are a more untrustworthy person.”
The Florida Bar’s health and wellness campaign may be genuine, but it hasn’t reached every corner of the UF law faculty, according to one student who said she was close to a meltdown when her 1-year-old required surgery a week before a law school exam.
Some professors were understanding, some weren’t, she said.
“In a way, I think there’s still a disconnect between the message that The Florida Bar is preaching, and the implementation at the law school level,” she said.