Growing psychological distress among law students and practitioners has prompted the University of Wollongong (UOW) to launch a new initiative aimed at equipping students with essential life and work skills.
The first of its kind in Australia, the Vitality for Life & Law initiative will be piloted as a seven-part seminar series in which first-year students will be given the tools to build successful and sustainable careers in the legal profession.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, associate dean (teaching and learning) of the faculty of law, Judith Marychurch, espoused the importance of implementing the initiative in the face of growing evidence of mental illness in students.
"I have had several experiences dealing with students who are depressed and they are really in serious need. They are at a point where it is debilitating," she said.
"It is all well and good to send them out with technical skills, but if we send them out without the skills to cope with the working world ... we are letting them down."
The program will include a series of evidence-based interactive lectures and experiential tutorials in which students will learn how to optimise academic performance and sustain their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.
"We need to take a more holistic approach to students' lives and say, 'It's your life first, and your profession is only a part of that.' That is why we have called it Vitality for Life & Law. There is a reason why life comes first."
Marychurch is hopeful that the program will not only prove successful within UOW's law faculty, but across numerous other areas.
"The aim is ultimately to have something that is sustainable and potentially transferable, not just to other law schools but also to other disciplines," she said.
"This is not something that is specific to law school. We may have a higher incidence, but there are also a lot of other faculties with similar problems."
Marychurch is also confident that the initiative will start to break down barriers and create a cultural change in the way people approach and deal with mental illness.
"There are a whole lot of people who don't actually ask for help, and you don't notice them and they don't get your attention," she said.
"We want to create a culture where it is okay to talk about these things and, in fact, one where it is not just okay, but it is something that we should be doing."
The initiative is being funded by UOW's Educational Strategies Development Fund and is being facilitated by lawyer-turned-leadership consultant and executive coach, Holly Kneebone.
- Claire Chaffey