Do we need a student mental health policy in the law field to create fit and proper legal practitioners?

Don’t we all want to be the best versions we can be in the legal fraternity? This may mean spreading yourself thin across all avenues to achieve greatness. But, is achieving greatness more important than one’s mental health and well-being?

The legal fraternity is a competitive career choice. You are competing amongst the greatest for the number one spot at one of the big five law firms in South Africa. Alternatively, the desire to be one of the best judges gracing the South African Courts. This comes with the unfortunate disease of comparison. Running on the treadmill, trying to fight for the number one spot. Rubbing shoulders with people who have made strides in the field. I for one believe that career success is forever abundant however your mental health and well-being are not. This raises the question of whether introducing a student mental health policy may lead to holistically balanced legal practitioners having the ability to deliver quality work. Most importantly, being a fit and proper legal practitioner in the Republic of South Africa. 

There have been studies of mental health difficulties among South African university students, the study suggests that 12 per cent experience moderate to severe symptoms of depression, 15 per cent have moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and 24 per cent report suicidal ideation (Bantjies et al. 2016). It has been proven by two pediatric nurses, that mental health not being addressed can affect school performance and academic achievement (Pushkar et al. 2007). This may mean that South African higher education institutions must prioritise student mental health policies to create the best legal practitioners they possibly can. Prioritising, mental health is of paramount importance and this means that section 27(1)(a) of the Constitution should be upheld. Looking at section 27(1)(a) of the Constitution, states, “Everyone has the right to have access to health care services, including reproductive healthcare.” The right to health as well as mental health services are fundamental to the physical and mental well-being of all individuals and ensuring that students are in the capacity to exercise other human rights.

Prioritising mental health policies in higher education institutions may look like investing resources into mental health professionals to support the mass students in these universities with their mental health. It may also look like investing money into designated spaces for students to take a beat from the demands, hustle, and bustle of being a student.

Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) provides for the “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health conducive to living a life of dignity.” This means that healthcare facilities and services must be available in sufficient quantity; must be physically and economically accessible to everyone, and must be ethically and culturally acceptable, for all students from different walks of life. According to section 7(2) of the Constitution, the State is obliged to respect, protect, promote, and fulfil all the rights in the Bill of Rights. I believe that along with the State, Higher education institutions should be bestowed with the obligation to ensure that mental health is prioritised, to ensure that they also, ‘respect, protect, promote, and fulfil all the rights in the Bill of Rights. Higher education institutions should ensure that mental health services are available to all on a non-discriminatory basis. This may look like higher education being obligated to protect including, inter alia, adopting legislation and other measures to ensure equal access to healthcare facilities provided by third parties. With the help from the state, the obligation to promote requires the State to disseminate appropriate information; foster research and support people to make informed choices. Higher education institutions should make it a priority for the State to facilitate and implement legislative and other measures in recognition of the right to health and adopt a national health policy with detailed plans on how to realise the right for all students.

Post-1994 being a democratic country, the State should task itself along with the universities across the Republic of South Africa, to transform the fragmented mental health system inherited from the Apartheid era, into a single National health system, based on equity and accessibility to all students. This then may contribute to creating the next generation of fit and proper legal practitioners to climb the corporate ladder in law or grace the South African Courts.  Subsequently, this may lead to the generation of fit and proper legal practitioners for the judiciary and law profession as a whole.

Author : Nyeleti Rikhotso

Nyeleti Rikhotso, a second-year LLB law student at the University of Pretoria, is passionate about transforming the legal framework of international environmental law. Despite societal expectations, she chooses a less-traveled path, aspiring to make a unique impact in a field where young girls of color are less represented.