A law school known for its student welfare program

By Christina Steube

University of Mississippi

Brittany Barbee, assistant dean for student affairs at UM Law School, prepares a display and information board for World Mental Health Day. The law school is honored for its efforts to promote student well-being and prepare them for life after graduation. Photo by Christina Steube/School of Law

It’s no secret that the study and practice of law is difficult and stressful. In a 2021 study69% of student respondents from 39 law schools said they needed help with emotional or mental health issues in the past year.

The same study reported that a third of students had been diagnosed with depression and 40% had been diagnosed with anxiety – statistics up 18% and 21%, respectively, from 2014.

The University of Mississippi Law School has made mitigating these negative statistics and actively helping law students in all walks of life part of its mission. The school’s student welfare program is among three national recipients of the 2022 E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award.

“So many different people have contributed to this work over the years, and it means so much to us to be able to share this good news with them,” said Brittany Barbee, associate dean of student affairs at the law school. “We look forward to continuing our wellness program and making it even better.”

The award is part of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Professionalism. School officials are expected to accept the award at the joint ABA Bar Services Division and National Conference of Bar Chairs awards luncheon, scheduled for Friday, Aug. 5, in Chicago.

The judges found that the school’s wellness program provides students with wellness resources and programs in an exemplary and innovative way.

The school developed a strong wellness program in 2018 to help students thrive in school and prepare them for success after graduation. Since then, the school has developed a range of programs and events to serve its approximately 475 students each year to provide support in the areas of intellectual, mental, physical, social, spiritual and financial well-being.

“Being a law student is challenging — you have to be able to deal with a lot of different stressors throughout your studies,” Barbee said. “If we can provide students with the tools to maintain their well-being in the midst of these stressors, then they will be well prepared, both personally and professionally, to practice law.” »

Every semester, Ole Miss Law School hosts a Wellness Challenge, where students can track their daily healthy habits to win prizes. Students can earn points for everything from taking a multivitamin to attending a community event to scheduling a counseling session.

First prize is a coveted, reserved parking space in front of the law school, with the two runners-up receiving unlimited passes to the university’s recreational facilities. The goal each semester is to have at least 10% of the school’s students participate, but some semesters the response has been much higher.

Another pillar of the wellness program is professional mental health services. Through a partnership with the Department of Psychology, the law school offers students free access to one-on-one, confidential counseling sessions.

The position of counselor is filled each year by a fifth-year doctoral student in clinical psychology, who is also a licensed therapist. The counselor’s office is located in the law school, making the service accessible and convenient for students to drop in or make an appointment.

Demand for counseling services has been high, but students on the waitlist are being referred to other local mental health clinics and practitioners. Over the past year, the counselor has also hosted a training session for faculty and staff on ways to help students who may be in crisis.

Some studies indicate that students of color and other underrepresented groups may even be susceptible to harm to well-being from the stress of law school. In response, Ole Miss Law School has incorporated a variety of approaches to diversity, equity, and inclusion programming over the past year, including hosted monthly “Diversity Talks” by student organizations.

Other year-round programs include mental health recognition days, weekly yoga and meditation classes, a revamped student lounge, and a collection of books on wellness topics and workshops. financial literacy.

Meredith Crockett, a second-year law student in Wilmore, Kentucky, is a former Wellness Challenge winner and has benefited from the program.

“The law school is known for the academic rigor of the courses, but also for a unique set of measures such as class rankings, internships and extracurricular activities that weigh heavily on the psyche of law students,” he said. she declared. “In the fall semester of my freshman year, my mental health began to deteriorate in ways I had never experienced before.

“As silly as it sounds, the goal of winning the wellness challenge encouraged me to prioritize my mental health and do the basics of drinking water, exercise and spending time. with my friends and family when my spirit told me to do otherwise.”

Crockett said the challenge redefines what wellness means to her in practice, beyond typical stereotypes.

“Wellness exists in every body size, every income bracket and different levels of ability,” she said. “Defining wellness as a holistic practice that includes both diet and exercise, but also spirituality, community, and self-care, opens the door for anyone to participate in the practice of wellness without monetary or capacity barriers that typical gyms and fitness plans present.

“I encourage everyone in my class to participate in the Wellness Challenge and see all the different ways the stressors in our daily lives become more manageable when we all collectively take care of our bodies, minds and our soul.”

The prize includes a cash prize of $3,500, which will be used to support more wellness programs.

Other program partners include the Mississippi Bar Association’s Attorney Assistance Program, the ABA’s Attorney Assistance Programs Commission, and AccessLex.

The awards committee was impressed with the “strong, multifaceted wellness program aimed at helping students thrive both in law school and after graduation, noting that the law school from the University of Mississippi was at the forefront of the legal community in addressing law students’ well-being and mental health,” said Committee Chair Stephanie Villinski in the official award letter.

“The Standing Committee on Professionalism commends the University of Mississippi Law School for implementing an innovative and effective program worthy of emulation across the country.”

Jon J. Epps