Day 6

How one law professor's depression led him to bring mindfulness into the classroom

Considered the first of its kind in Canada, the course will focus on self-awareness and mental health. Thomas Telfer, the professor leading the course, says it's needed to combat the high rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse among lawyers.

Western University's law school is now offering a full-credit course in mindfulness

Thomas Telfer is a law professor at Western University in London, Ont. (Submitted by Thomas Telfer)
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It was his own hospital stay for depression — and a subsequent suicide attempt — that pushed law professor Thomas Telfer to build a university course around mindfulness.

"I had a completely different perspective walking into a classroom knowing that a number of students might actually be struggling with mental health issues," Telfer told Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho.

For the first time this September, a full-credit, elective course on mindfulness and the legal profession will be offered to upper-year students at Western University's law school in London, Ont. Both Dalhousie University in Halifax and the University of Ottawa offer mindfulness to first-year students. 

"The Law Society [of Ontario] actually recommended mindfulness to improve mental health and well-being for lawyers and I think the same statement applies to law students," said Telfer.

Studies have shown that lawyers experience high rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Studies find that lawyers experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. (Shutterstock)

According to a 2016 U.S. survey of over 12,000 lawyers, 1 in 4 reported living with depression while approximately 1 in 5 had symptoms of anxiety. Twenty per cent showed signs of "alcohol-dependent drinking."

A 2017 University of Toronto study found lawyers were more likely to experience depressive symptoms as they gained success in their field.

Teaches students to respond, not react

Telfer discovered mindfulness while receiving treatment in hospital for depression. After a suicide attempt in 2016, he decided to adopt mindfulness and was "determined" to offer it to his students.

He first launched Mindfulness Ambassadors, a non-credit mindfulness program for law students based on a program by the organization Mindfulness Without Borders, at Western in 2017. 

"I really didn't know what the student reaction would be or the demand," he said. "To my surprise, in the first year I offered it, it filled within a day and a half."

Long hours can lead to a poor work-life balance for lawyers. Studies say that has a impact on lawyers' mental health. (Shutterstock)

Students don't simply learn how to meditate. Each semester begins with students examining why lawyers tend to be unhappy in their professions. 

They then apply mindfulness to legal skills, like client interview negotiation and conflict resolution.

"The idea behind mindfulness is it gives you the choice in how to respond rather than to react on an automatic pilot situation," Telfer said.

The concept didn't come easy to Telfer, however. For years, he says he was focused on "productivity." Mindfulness instead promotes a slow, thoughtful approach.

"I completely rejected the idea … it seemed non-productive to be sitting doing nothing," Telfer said.

Positive impact

Now, Telfer says he has already seen a positive change in students following his 2017 mindfulness pilot program. 

"I've been an academic for 25 years and ... the feedback after the course is something I've never experienced as an academic. It was quite unique," he said.

One student shared with Telfer that she practiced a meditation he calls "Take Five" ahead of her first law school exam.

It's a simple practice: for five seconds at a time, students focus on taking five breaths.

"[She] found that it grounded her and she was able to then go on and write the exam."

In a profession where work-life balance leans heavily on work and lawyers frequently experience burnout, living in the present moment — a key aspect of mindfulness — can benefit law students, Telfer argues.

"Focusing on the future can cause anxiety, as well as focusing on the past, and being present in negotiation, I think, slows things down."


Where to get help

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free 1-833-456-4566

Text: 45645

Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca 

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)