A Guide to Handling Covid and Bar Blues

The Bar Vacation

The Bar course has had a reputation as being one of the most stressful courses in an aspiring barrister’s life. This was not always the case historically, as once upon a time the bar course or BVC as it was then known, colloquially had the name Bar Vacation Course. Students used to breeze through it and practice their skills at the physical bar. In those days, we also had unpaid pupillages, an abundance of places available for pupillage to tap on the shoulder (old boys club) candidates, and other tales that might go the way of the annuals of history. Those days are sadly and not so sadly behind us and with that we now face the nightmare of core exams where 3000 plus pages of is expected to be remembered for one 3-hour exam.

Unsurprisingly the number of students who have withdrawn from the course for medical reasons is on the rise, although it remains a small figure. The larger is perhaps the unsung number of students that suffer in silence as wellbeing has often been trampled on by the saying ‘barrister have a tough skin’. Personally, I recognise that barristers have tough skins, but last I checked a student is not a crocodile but is a human and with that comes mental strain. Also, given burn out at the bar is now a bigger issue, wellbeing initiatives have arise so it is only fair we consider it in this article.

Managing Anxieties and Recognising they Exist

In the past few years, the NHS have released reports showing 1 in 5 suffer from bouts of depression or anxiety, with greater numbers amongst those in law degrees within the academic field, and given our industry emphasis on showing a brave front and heavy drinking perhaps the worries get drowned out in more ways than one.

Given the current Covid-19 crisis the NHS has reported this number has increased again as previous coping mechanism have been removed with the Guardian reporting the number of anxiety and depression suffers soaring, based on a report by the British Medical Journal.

Spotting Anxiety or Depression

Knowing the Bar Course can cause anxiety, maybe even depression and that there is a possibility that those on the Bar Course might have it. The next stage might well be self-diagnosis (especially if you have been putting on a brave face so that those around you have not noticed). Now, I am no Doctor and both anxiety and depression have nuances. What I can provide is a list of symptoms as provided on the NHS website for Generalised Anxiety Disorder:

According to the NHS, GAD has the effect of influencing your behaviour and the way you think about things resulting in psychological and physical symptoms:

Psychological include: restlessness, sense of dread, feeling constantly ‘on edge’, difficulties concentrating, and irritability with the person affected seeking to avoid social contact or work as they find it difficult and stressful leading to potentially the situation worsening along with a lack of self-belief.

Physical include: dizziness, tiredness, noticeably strong/fast/irregular heartbeat, muscle aches and tensions, trembling or shaking, dry mouth, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, feeling sick, headache, pins and needles, insomnia.

There are also NHS guidelines on depression symptoms with a self-assessment test you can take for  good measure. I will say no more on recognising the symptoms.

Seeking Professional Medical Advice is a Must

If you believe that you or someone close to you is having the symptoms I leave it to your judgment of whether you take the test but whatever you decide make sure to seek professional medical advice above all things. As it might be the case that medication is not needed, it could just be you require counselling, lifestyle changes or to take a break from the bar exams.

What you do not want to do is put your health at risk, I say this with a heavy heart knowing a young women who took the bar and to all seemed to be the picture of perfect health with good grades until she committed suicide. Now, that is an extreme case, hopefully, no one you know will experience the same but that is how bad this condition can get and despite what others may say, the bar is not worth surrendering your life for. So get help early, its never too late as long as you start now.

Counselling, a Coping Measure

Now, it might be the case you have anxieties, but not as serious as stated above, in which case it might be remedied by other means. If the anxiety comes from fears you feel cannot be voiced with others you know, for fear of how they will perceive you then speaking to Counsellors or Chaplin’s might help. Personally, I would speak to friends and family, I was worried for my image at first, but true friends will stick with you and there tends to be a least one sympathetic ear in family. What those who love you do not want is for you to suffer in silence and them lose you one day because of it.

Yet, if this is not an option because family is geographically absent, relationships are not great and friends just are not there it might be worth speaking to a counsellor.

To explain, Counsellors and Chaplains are trained members of the public who exist to listen to your concerns in a non-judgemental way and provide confidential advice specific to the giver of the concerns. With Chaplain’s being unique since they are a type of religious counsellor such as:

  • An Imam,
  • Brahmin or;
  • A member of the Clergy

I repeat again, that seeking medical advice if you have symptoms is a higher priority but if the worries are not so serious then counselling might be what is needed. Just having that sympathetic and encouraging ear that will listen to your worries.

Self Help and the Role of Nutritional Psychology, You Are What You Don’t Eat

Technically seeking advice from a medical professional or counsellor is self-help, but I am talking about lifestyle choices. Something I came across in my own research on nutritional psychology was the growing authoritative research on the link between nutritional deficiencies and feeling conditions more severely. For example, one research on anxiety found women low in Omega 3 and Vitamin D had been experiencing more severe symptoms of Anxiety. Whilst, those high in it had the reverse effect. It is often the case study the bar that we sometimes neglect ourselves and in doing so we leave ourselves open to illness.

General Ideas on how to help yourself if you consider you might have Anxiety or Depression on the bar.

  1. Conduct an NHS approved self-assessment, even if you think you might not have a problem it might just be you do not know.
  • Once you have the results, if there is a possibility arrange a skype or in-person meeting with a medical expert to see what you can do.
  • If it is not so severe but there are some issues you have now spotted then consider whether counselling will help.
  • If counselling is not the solution, or you are currently experiencing no symptoms it might be worth taking a look at your lifestyle to be sure that it is working for you. As in you have set it up to help you.
  • Then check up on yourself regularly as you might slip into anxiety or depression without realising it.

Addressing the Elephant in the Room, Steps to Take Action

The following action plan is one which I used on the BPTC to prevent the onset of anxiety and depression. I was perhaps one of the few people on the BPTC that got through the entire course without being stressed. (Do not get me wrong it was no breeze, I did not get outstanding’s, but I kept a cool head)

  1. Create a Schedule
  1. I remember the smartest women on my course had a schedule (me too I will add) she became the best student on the bar course that year across courses. Now, she had a method, work like the BPTC was a job in the week and the weekend was hers to see family. She used to rent near to campus. She also took language class just to get her mind off of things and avoided most qualifying sessions during the academic year. She also typed all her notes on the laptop and went over them after class to make sure they were functional.
  • My schedule was a bit more frantic, so not follow my example unless you flourish in chaos like me. I lived around 2 hours from the University so had to travel in. I also ran a baseball club on Wednesday and Saturdays. Was the President of the Universities student association, volunteered at FRU, was in the drama and Shakespeare production, wrote journal competition entries, competed in moots, attended more qualifying sessions then was needed, I think 11 in the winter term. I also used to spend most of my time in library, went to gym just before lectures started, worked evenings, nights and weekends, did three minipupillages, my masters for the LLM part of the BPTC. Also fell ill in the early exam season so had to get my nutrition on point and exam notes as I was, perhaps 10% of my normal self. Hmm might have overdone it that year but was somehow the most positive person on the course.
  • Taking both our experiences together the best way to approach the course would be to live in student rented accommodation near to the campus (everyone who lived on campus got the better results due to more free time and less on travel). – I mean I had to leave Qualifying Sessions and then get home at 1-3 am perhaps not the best plan. Come up with a study plan and study with your classmates as they will become your comrades in arms at in the industry. Also, learn as much as you can from experience – here at Aspiring Barristers we can certainly help in our own ways. Plus, solve financial issues before you get to the BPTC that way you can focus on the course which in reality is not so hard. Do a few hobbies, just perhaps not to my extremes hahaha and I definitely think given my experiences, doing a minipupillage in winter will really help you understand the concepts on the course if it is over a full hearing and definitely speak to your tutors and lectures from day one for extra help (I only really did that in term 3 and wish I had started sooner for all courses). I used to visit my tutors very often to help focus my studies.
  • Eat more good stuff, consume less bad stuff, without going into too much detail on nutrition, aim to eliminate negative substances like alcohol, illicit drugs so on (unless you plan to learn more about criminal litigation from the Defendants perspective) and then increase the intake of good food balance – fish, white meats, dark green salad, slow release carbs, stay hydrated (with water), superfoods like berries and nuts.

  • Get a social life or at least some form, football once a week or theatre (or some other hobby that is outside law) – I studied the bar course with a London provider and would occasionally go to the Temple music concerts or the Classical Music concerts at the Barbican Centre (costs £5 to 10).

  • As a side note if you do have anxiety or depression diagnosed, are taking medication and continuing on the course – just be sure to make the course lecturers aware of your situation and classmates so that they can help during the course and what you do not want is for your condition to be misunderstood and you be humiliated as a result.

Conclusion

I hope this article was helpful; remember to consult a medical expert for help if you believe there is cause for concern and I look forward to hearing from you as an aspiring barrister and one day as a barrister 😊.

An Article by Cameron Haden, Director of Aspiring Barristers

Part of Wellbeing at the Bar Guide Series