OU Law Brings Student Mental Health and Well-Being to the Forefront

September 20, 2019 | By Melissa Caperton, Director of Communications
Andrew M. Coats Hall

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Melissa Caperton
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NORMAN, OKLA. – Preparing law students to become lawyers involves more than just the knowledge obtained in the classroom. Addressing student well-being by promoting candid dialogue and providing access to health resources is a key focus area at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

In comparison to other professions, lawyers and legal professionals experience higher levels of mental health distress, substance use and addiction – issues that can begin in law school. To promote awareness, to help students manage their own health and to reduce the stigma associated with seeking assistance, OU Law offers a number of wellness initiatives and resources throughout the year.

“To be a good lawyer, one must be a healthy lawyer,” said OU Law Interim Dean Katheleen Guzman. “At OU Law, our top priority is empowering our students to achieve their goals, and helping them learn to manage the demands of legal work and to recognize unhealthy symptoms is at the core of our mission. It would disserve our students if we did not provide them with every tool available to support their success – including instilling the importance of nurturing overall health.”

As part of the college’s wellness program, three lunchtime seminars featuring lawyer well-being experts will be held at OU Law this semester. Students are required to attend one session, but are encouraged to attend all three.

The first seminar will be held this Monday at noon at the College of Law. District Judge Ken Stoner (OU Law ’01), who presides over the Oklahoma County Drug Court, will speak on the intersection of addiction and the law, and on using artificial intelligence to battle addiction. The second wellness seminar will be held Oct. 7 and will feature Law.com editor-in-chief Leigh Jones (OU Law ’96), who will discuss Law.com’s year-long series on attorney and law student well-being. Speaking at the third wellness seminar on Nov. 11 will be Reggie Whitten (OU Law ’80), co-founder of the Whitten Burrage law firm and founder of FATE (Fighting Addiction Through Education), a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public and state leaders on substance abuse and addiction.

In addition, professional mental health counseling services are now being offered within Andrew M. Coats Hall. Appointments are offered weekly, and students are encouraged to schedule an appointment if desired. While law students previously had access to mental health and wellness services through the University Counseling Center, they now have direct access, by appointment, to a licensed professional at the OU Law Center.

“Our hope is that by offering such services within the building, students will feel more empowered to seek help,” said Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Brent Dishman.

In the college’s peer mentoring program, OU Law has appointed 19 upper-year student mentors to assist and advise students in their first year of law school. As part of their duties, mentors are trained on the mental health counseling treatment options available to all students, including where to find these resources and how to refer a fellow student for help.  

“A student in distress is more likely to talk to a fellow student than a faculty or staff member,” Dishman said. “Our hope is that by empowering a broad group of student leaders, those students seeking help will find someone he/she is comfortable talking to and get the assistance that is needed.”

This year, OU Law’s Student Bar Association has appointed two student wellness officers, and the association is looking into making this a permanent position in future years. The wellness officers will plan two SBA Wellness Weeks – one in the fall and one in the spring – featuring activities and speakers focused on topics such as attorney/student wellness, mindfulness, diet, exercise, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Additionally, the OU Law Library is increasing its collection of wellness-related books and materials, and is bringing them together in a central yet quiet location.

“It is critical that we acknowledge these issues and talk about them openly and honestly,” Guzman said. “Our students need to know that they are not alone. The collective health of our law school and our profession is strengthened when we can all support, and rely on, each other.”

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