At a recent panel discussion, Harvard Law School faculty members Sabrineh “Sabi” Ardalan ’02, Michael Gregory ’04, and Scott Westfahl ’88 candidly discussed their experiences with mental health, during and after law school, and shared how those have informed their work and strategies for well-being.
The Oct. 12 event, sponsored by the Dean of Students Office and Harvard Law School’s Student Well-Being Working Group, was part of a community effort to destigmatize mental health and prioritize wellbeing. The discussion was one of a weeklong series of school-sponsored events to mark ABA Mental Health Week.
Student moderators Sammy Camy ’23 and Alice Hu ’24, who both serve on the HLS Well-Being Working Group, kicked off the conversation by asking the faculty panelists what their understanding of mental health was while in law school and how has it changed.
Gregory, who is also a member of the Well-Being Working Group, said that while mental health wasn’t something that was emphasized while he was a law student, it is now the focus of his professional work. As faculty director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, Gregory has spent his professional life addressing the impact of traumatic experience on learning, particularly for students in schools.
Among the things he now understands that he didn’t while he was in law school, said Gregory, is that it is less important to think of mental health as being about specific diagnoses and more important to see it as “a continuum, that we’re all on.”
“We’re all at different places on the continuum at different moments at different points in our lives,” he said.
He also noted that internal and external factors interact with an individual’s mental health in a variety of ways. Gregory urged students to find “neighborhoods” within the law school where they can feel connected, engage in meaningful work and collaborations, and find a team of people who respect and support their contributions.
“Psychology is really clear that competence is actually a product of person and environment,” said Gregory. “That means we’re able to be our best selves and appear and be and feel competent at what we’re trying to do when we’re in an environment that fits us … where we feel safe and supported.”
Westfahl, who teaches courses on leadership and innovation and directs Harvard Law School’s Executive Education program, said that when he attended in the late 1980s, the law school was a very different place. “There was no discussion or awareness or conversations about mental health,” he said.
For Westfahl, a crisis moment came when he was a 10-year associate at a law firm. Convinced that he was experiencing a heart attack, he landed in the hospital where he was shocked to discover he was suffering from a panic attack. “It was the scariest thing,” he said.
It took him a year, working closely with a doctor and a therapist, to get through, he recalled, but he now describes the experience as a “tremendous revelation.”
“I really focused on why did that happen,” he said. “How did I lose sight of who I was as a person? Where were my values?” More than anything, he realized, he had been working hard to serve clients and build community at his firm, but he hadn’t been focusing on taking care of himself first before helping others.
Ardalan said she built her law school experience with the expectation that she would pursue public interest work in human rights and immigration advocacy after graduation. But her parents, Iranians who sought asylum in the U.S. after the Iranian Revolution in the 1980s, expected that she would pursue a more lucrative law firm path.
“One of my most vivid memories was crying in the office of the person who ran the clinic that I now work in because I desperately wanted to do public interest work,” she said.
While Ardalan did work for a law firm during her first few years after law school, she changed jobs several times, acquiring a number of different skills, before finding the right fit. When asked what advice she would share with her younger self, Ardalan said, “Your first job isn’t your always job.”
As director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, says Ardalan, she sees raising awareness about mental health as an important focus of her work.
“A lot of what we do is work with trauma survivors,” she said. “We have really detailed, in-depth conversations with them about many terrible things that have happened to them throughout their lives. And it can have effects on us,” she said.
“At the same time, there are so many wonderful things and so many joys that come from doing direct legal services work,” she said, noting that she believes it’s also important to build awareness of mental health challenges and incorporate that conversation into the learning that students are doing in the clinic.
The panel was one of a host of events and opportunities to focus on wellness sponsored by the Student Well-Being Working Group as part of The Well, a community effort the school launched last year to prioritize well-being and destigmatize mental health. The Well serves as a centralized spot for accessing wellness and mental health resources.