In law schools, a case of mental health

On campus, suicide has become the leading cause of death among India’s youth.

ByShivani Chimnani
In law schools, a case of mental health
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Law is known to be a stressful profession, and law schools in recent years have become an area of fierce competition. The undergraduate course in India spans over five years, considerably longer as compared to other courses, and includes a flurry of academically-oriented extra-curricular activities in addition to classes, routine assignments and exams.

During this time, a typical law student is expected to ace moot court competitions, debates, write academic papers, intern in top notch law firms, and do practically everything short of going to the moon.

Students often feel pressured going through these ostensible rites of passage in a typical law school even if they don’t want to.

Often typecast as the epicentre of human grimness, law schools have spawned popular culture stereotypes that characterise them with despondent students flipping tables and crying in the library due to the sheer amount of impending school work. This has indoctrinated many to lead a life which reaches that stress threshold, so as to be an ideal law student and reach the peak of Career Mountain.

Students’ dilemma

Over the past few decades, law, like engineering and medicine, has come to be an aspirational career. It therefore sees youth from various socio-economic backgrounds come to these institutes of higher education for a financially stable and fulfilling career. This may also give rise to students succumbing to high-competition environments and even discriminatory practices, which becomes a greater road-block for individuals battling mental health issues.

There are certain common problems faced by students once they reach university. For new students, they may have been the top fliers in their school, but then they get to university and realise they are among other top fliers. They suddenly feel deskilled and suffer a loss of confidence.

Moreover, law schools in India are allotted rankings by various portals perpetuating an unwarranted disparity. This compels students not belonging to the crème de la crème of law schools to do everything over and above, to overcompensate for any academic limitations so as to not impede future opportunities.

In addition, many students find it difficult to get used to life in a new town and handle responsibilities by themselves without support from their family or friends. There is an acute feeling of loneliness which sometimes leads students to resort to harmful substances to fill in an inter-personal void.

Krisha Jethani, a fourth-year law student, remarks: “It is unfortunate how in this hyper-competitive law school environment, individual effort bears no significance. You’re only recognised when a high numerical value is assigned to your grades or have a piece of metal conferred upon you. Different universities have different resources and, given the disparity, students feel pressured to bridge gaps to make up for institutional incompetence.”

An additional pressure is sculpting law school choices depending on the kind of lawyer one wants to become and according to what would best suit future prospects.

As Justice Chandrachud, while addressing a gathering, remarked, students interested in gaining a job in the corporate legal sector fashion their choice of courses, their extracurricular activities, as well as the internships they pursue, in a manner that would make them attractive candidates for recruitment – a corporatisation of education. This remains a pitiful state of affairs.

Moreover, a lot of the pressure also stems from the intrinsic nature of the legal profession. Lawyers are often characterised as ultra-confident know-it-alls, known to put up a masterly front irrespective of the circumstances. Students tend to emulate these peculiarities in order to groom themselves early on.

Seeking help

The idea of approaching a counsellor is usually met with resistance or surprise or plain scoffing. Given the societal taboo attached to mental health problems, a person would typically suffer in silence rather than tolerate the apparent shame of seeking professional help. This taboo only exacerbates the current problem.

Government Law College in Mumbai is one of the very few institutes in the city which has constituted a Counselling Cell that has been rendering service to students and staff since August 2016. Professor Sunita Masani (MA in clinical psychology), the counsellor of the said cell, says “students visit for a wide range of issues including personal and relationship problems; psychological problems including stress, loneliness, peer adjustments, parental pressure; career and vocational guidance and to foster personal and social development. The cell strives to create a safe space for students to be comfortable enough to speak their mind and functions on a trusted assurance of full confidence”.

Speaking out of personal experience, when I first approached the cell, I was extremely apprehensive. I had never done this before. I was facing stress and anxiety because of encountering certain failures. More to say, I was constantly having a professional FOMO for not having done numerous things my peers had.

I felt this compelling need to be productive every minute which used to overshadow any possibility for unwinding. I thought my problems were frivolous, just normal day-to-day stuff which I would somehow get rid of with hyper-vigilance. But the stress had become overwhelming, so I went anyway.

The several sessions, apart from helping me overcome my anxiety, my compelling need to control inevitable circumstances, and my constant tendency to self-deprecate, most importantly, helped me reinforce faith in myself.

In our warped sense of priorities, mental health has always taken the backseat. We’re all under tremendous pressure of securing absurdly high grades, doing well in extracurricular activities, having a social life good enough to flaunt over social media, and rather being the master of all jacks. It’s maddening. But it is what it is.

The way forward

India is currently facing a mounting mental health crisis. On campus, that suicide has become the leading cause of death among India’s youth has been known for many years, and there was no significant acknowledgment of this public health crisis by any responsible authority until 2015.

In 2015, the University Grants Commission released ‘Guidelines on Safety of Students on and off Campuses of Higher Educational Institutions’ (HEI). Guideline 2 particularly lays down “HEIs should mandatorily put in place a broad-based ‘Students Counselling System’ for the effective management of problems and challenges faced by students. It should be a unique, interactive and target-oriented system, involving students, teachers and parents, resolved to address common student concerns ranging from anxiety, stress, fear of change and failure to homesickness and a slew of academic worries. It should bridge the formal as well as communicative gaps between the students and the institution at large”.

However, the said guidelines are suggestive and not mandatory and their implementation by higher educational institutions has been sparse.

As individuals, we have to acknowledge that each of us has different capabilities and is programmed differently. We have to uphold this diversity and stop doing things for the heck of doing things. We need to talk to each other and work towards building a healthy environment. There needs to be an espousal of values of mutual respect, care and support. We also have to try and be impervious to mindless competition.

Most importantly, we have to aim towards having a fulfilling educational experience rather than a successful one. As clichéd as it may sound, we have to learn how to enjoy the fruits of learning. It’s important to maintain autonomy over your education process and not give in to the popular idea of success.

It’s natural to catch yourself feeling anxious about how to stay motivated, especially in this endless, onerous half-a-decade of law school. You can’t dismiss or abandon the feeling. But you sure can fix it.

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