May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Many of our clients who seek legal representation from the Student & Athlete Defense Practice Group face crippling mental health issues, which isn’t surprising given a 2018 report from the American College Health Association. This study notes that 63% of college students experience “overwhelming anxiety,” and over 40% of these students feel so depressed that they have “difficulty functioning.” Students today are not only dealing with stress from circumstances like making it to class, getting good grades and fitting in with the right peer group, but also from extreme stressors such as campus shootings, suicide and sexual assault.
Sadly, little attention is paid to students accused of Title IX sexual misconduct allegations or other forms of campus misconduct. These students are expected to function at school while having to face administrative charges that could result in a suspension or expulsion. Many of them are also ostracized by peers or brushed aside by friends who don’t want to get involved in messy campus or legal proceedings. While there are a host of mental health services and support groups for Title IX complainants, the resources for the accused are less available. We have spoken with many clients late at night to console them as they grapple with overwhelming emotions. While no lawyer can ever predict the future, we do our best to provide as much support as possible to help our clients navigate through painful waters.
Our students don’t typically suffer from just depression and/or anxiety. Many have other chronic conditions, such as sleep and eating disorders, headaches, pain, irritable bowel syndrome and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Some of our clients turn to coping mechanisms like cutting or substance abuse, rather than seeking healthy treatment options. We tell our clients to pay attention to warning signs. Indeed, from our very first meeting with new clients, we stress the importance of self-care. All too often, we must see behind the “I’m fine” mentality. We never want our clients to feel alone. For this reason, we regularly remind our clients that there are resources and networks out there for help and support.
After practicing in this area for many years, we understand the importance of having an open dialogue about mental health at our first meeting. We ask about our client’s medical history so that we can refer them to the proper resources or encourage them to make appointments with their own provider in cases where a relationship already exists. We believe that students should take the following steps to maintain stable mental health during misconduct proceedings:
- Talk with mental health professionals who can use a wide variety of techniques, from talk therapy to medication, to help students manage extreme stress and anxiety;
- Limit screen time and stay away from social media, including Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. Social media is known to increase anxiety and depression in users, creating “FOMO” (fear of missing out) and a sense that others lead a “perfect life,” when they feel that their entire future is at risk;
- Keep away from toxic, judgmental or non-supportive people. We tell our clients that this kind of situation will reveal who their real friends are and that in the long run, this is good information to have in life;
- Engage in basic self-care – get enough sleep, drink enough water and eat well-balanced meals throughout the day. We don’t want our clients’ health to deteriorate under stress.
- Avoid alcohol and other substances that impact mood. While we know it is hard to do at college, we recommend avoiding large parties and potentially awkward social situations.
- Exercise, practice yoga and seek spiritual support from whatever source complements your upbringing and faith. This is an ideal time to look to a higher power for inspiration and help.
In addition to recommending self-care, we ask our clients if they need academic accommodations. If so, we help frame requests to either the Title IX office or the school’s office of disability accommodations. Some of our clients need to reduce their course load, while others might need more time to complete assignments and examinations. In more extreme cases, some students might need to withdraw from some classes to relieve stress and pressure.
While it may be Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s time for us to shine the spotlight on this issue year-round – and treat those who suffer from mental health challenges with compassion and dignity.
If you have any questions or would like to learn more about KJK’s Student & Athlete Defense practice, please contact Susan Stone at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216.736.7220, Kristina Supler at email@example.com or 216.736.7217, or Melissa Yasinow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216.736.7205.
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