Mental Health Awareness – A Holistic Approach for Future Legal Professionals

By Hannah Darnell, Law Clinic Manager - 24 October 2022

It is widely reported and accepted that we are experiencing a mental health crisis in the UK, latterly related to the cost of living and consequences of recovery from a global pandemic.

As a former Police Officer, I experienced first hand the tangible effects of poor mental health and the consequences for people when the support and understanding was not immediately available. I became acutely aware of this when I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder upon leaving my Police career some years ago. It was a particularly lonely time as I felt that very few people recognised and understood what I was experiencing. Indeed, it took me some time to understand it. 

Fortunately, with the support of the national charity Police Care UK, I was able to recover from the physical and psychological harm experienced as a result of policing in today’s world.

As the Manager of the newly launched Grampian Community Law Centre (“GCLC”), part of RGU’s Law School, I now prepare Student Advisors for life after studies in the world of professional legal practice, and lecture law students on the Law in the Community module available on the LL.B

In considering what training I wanted to offer the students in both capacities, I immediately felt it was important to think ‘outside of the box’ in terms of preparing the students fully for their future careers. I also wanted to ensure that the students were leaving university with a holistic approach to problem-solving which they could take into the modern world of practice.  

Fortuitously, I met Ross Leven of RGU’s ResLife about this time, and learned that Ross had recently qualified as Student Life’s latest trainer in Mental Health First Aid. After a discussion with Ross, training courses were put in place for the GCLC Student Advisors and Law in the Community students to allow them to gain an Award in Leading First Aid for Mental Health at Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) Level 6.  

Ross explained to me that the course would train the students to understand: 

- What mental health is;
- Why people develop mental health conditions;
- The role of a First Aider for mental health;
- How to provide advice and practical support for a person presenting with a mental health condition;
- How to recognise and manage stress;
- The impact of substance abuse on mental health;
- The first aid action plan for mental health and how to put this in place;
- How to implement a positive mental health culture in the workplace; and
- How to recognise a range of mental health conditions.

As GCLC’s Community Clinic assists and supports people on low incomes with free legal advice across the North East of Scotland, I wanted to offer the students the opportunity to undertake this qualification through the GCLC to ensure they were prepared for any challenges they might encounter during the course of assisting people across a broad spectrum.

Ross was instrumental in setting up the courses and arranging for the training to take place, and we now have 17 RGU law students qualified to SCQF Level 6 in Mental Health First Aid; something I feel we should as a university be proud of. I am very grateful to Ross for his support and enthusiasm in putting this in place. Ross explained to me that, “Mental Health First Aid has been a key component of the training our ResLife Assistants receive each year, and it’s been great to be able to support the GCLC Student Advisors, as we look to offer the training to staff and student members of our community.”

GCLC Student Advisor, Natalie Baird-McEvoy, attended the training and explained to me what it meant to her: “I want to be the divorce lawyer who checks-in on my client to offer support and compassion at a difficult time; the insolvency lawyer who signposts my client to supportive agencies if they are struggling with their circumstances; simply put, I want my clients to know that I understand what they might be feeling and who to guide them towards to gain the best possible support.

"It was for this reason that I signed up to the Leading First Aid in Mental Health Course offered by the Grampian Community Law Centre (GCLC), and I want to thank Ross Leven for the insightful training and GCLC for giving Student Advisors the opportunity to gain invaluable knowledge and a formal qualification in this subject area. Prior to the course, I thought I would be able to identify a person struggling and knew the signs to watch out for. As it turned out, Ross highlighted signs of mental health illnesses that I wasn’t even aware of and, importantly, the essential services available for me to signpost people to.

"I’m grateful to be able to apply this learning in my work at GCLC and also in a personal capacity. I wanted to study law to help people. This course has made me more aware of what clients and colleagues may be experiencing and given me the tools I need to provide clients with a people-centred and holistic approach to the provision of legal advice.”

The holistic learning, however, does not end there as I am in the process of arranging Trauma Awareness training for the GCLC Student Advisors to instil compassion and open-mindedness in dealing with people from all walks of life at an early stage in their legal careers. 

I recently had the good fortune of meeting the team behind Trauma Aware Law of which Iain Smith of Keegan Smith Defence Solicitors forms part. In a recent interview for The Ferret (an investigative journalism co-operative) entitled, “A chance for change: how trauma awareness is challenging Scotland’s justice system”, Iain explained that understanding and considering trauma in a legal setting is not about making excuses for a crime but understanding how the person got there, why they behave as they do. For the work of the GCLC, I feel it is important that the Student Advisors understand that people have different experiences in life and learn at a very early stage to set aside any judgement or preconceptions they might otherwise have had. This is where the trauma awareness training comes in. 

The trauma awareness training will be open to schools across the University, and the event will be advertised in advance to allow you to attend should you wish to do so. 

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