Inside Track: Put Wellness First: Law Students Reduce the Stigma of Mental Health Challenges:

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  • Put Wellness First: Law Students Reduce the Stigma of Mental Health Challenges

    The message of the U.W. law students is: put health and wellness first, and the rest will follow. And they want the students to know that they are not the only ones dealing with ongoing stress and occasional panic. They are helping their classmates to stay mentally fit to cope with the stresses of law school – and life.

    Shannon Green

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    June 7, 2017 – Law school students looking out for the well-being of their peers. An attorney helping those who wonder if they need a lawyer, and another who for 40 years has helped Wisconsin’s most vulnerable population. And a lawyer dedicated to helping high school students learn skills that will help them succeed.

    They are a handful of those recognized this year by their peers and for making a difference to those around them. These are the stories of those making a difference to the people around them, near and far. Join the State Bar in honoring them at the Member Recognition Celebration at the State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference in Wisconsin Dells on June 15.

    U.W. Law School Student Wellness Coalition’s Message: ‘You Are Not Alone’

    U.W. Law School Student Wellness Coalition

    Members of the U.W. Law Student Wellness Coalition, with faculty and staff advisors. Left side, bottom to top: Patrick Shirley, Jill Johnson, Stephanie Johnson, Will Kramer; middle, bottom to top: Kira Visser, Jen Bizzotto, Dana Roth, John Lightfield; right, bottom to top: Dean Margaret Raymond, Adriana Aristeiguieta Dean, Prof. Megan McDermott, and Matt Coker.

    “It seems unbelievable to me that in 2017, we still don't speak openly about mental health issues,” said U.W. Law School 3L Jill Johnson, member of the Student Wellness Coalition.

    Members of the Coalition are the recipients of this year’s Jack DeWitt WisLAP Volunteer Award from the Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program Committee, for their work raising awareness of and reducing the stigma of the mental, physical, and emotional challenges law students face.

    The group formed in the fall of 2016 in response to the suicide over the summer of a U.W. law student known to most of them.

    The group’s president, Jen Bizzotto, a 2L, understands the circumstances that could lead to such a tragic action: she felt intense pressure and even suffered panic attacks as a 1L taking second semester finals. Her reaction even made her temporarily question whether she wanted to be a lawyer. “I got better after I got help,” Bizzotto said.

    Realizing she isn’t the only student reacting to the stressful environment of law school, she wondered how to help others find the help they need. “What we are dealing with is real,” she said.

    The message of the coalition is: put health and wellness first, and the rest will follow. And they want the students to know that they are not the only ones dealing with ongoing stress and occasional panic.

    “We need to make it as acceptable to talk openly about such issues as it is to talk about cancer or a broken arm. And we have to make it OK to seek help,” Johnson said.

    During the school year, the coalition helped fellow students deal with the stress of classes and exams. They organized alcohol-free social activities; they left messages around the school to encourage wellness breaks from studying, and sent handmade cards to 1Ls during first semester exams. They sought to create a safe, private space for students who need a break. And they have plans for the 2Ls and 3Ls to share their stories, to help 1Ls adjust to law school.

    org sgreen wisbar Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by org sgreen wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.

    Their work is important, says Professor Sarah Davis, the coalition’s faculty advisor. “Physical health and mental health are interconnected, and the sooner we obliterate these artificial distinctions, bust the stigma attached to mental health, and prioritize health individually and collectively, the healthier we will be,” said Davis.

    The award is “an amazing recognition” for the group, said Dean Margaret Raymond. It also reflects a partnership with WisLAP, which they initiated – an action stemming from an attitude Raymond applauds – one that will give them an advantage as they begin their law careers. 

    “The students recognize that the challenges law students face in law school is the beginning of a career full of challenges. Learning at this stage that there are useful resources, knowledge, and support available for them is a great start,” Raymond said.

    Harold Menendez: Forty Years of Helping Wisconsin’s Most Vulnerable

    Harold Menendez

    Harold Menendez grew up in a low-income community. “I know what it’s like to be in need and what it's like to feel that you don’t count,” he said.

    Menendez of Legal Action of Wisconsin is the recipient of the 2017 Dan Tuchscherer Outstanding Public Interest Law Attorney Award from the State Bar’s Public Interest Law Section.

    Menendez has dedicated his nearly 40-year career to fighting for Wisconsin’s lowest-income residents and vulnerable populations such as migrants and refugees. His choice of career path was an easy decision for him. “I never really thought about what I’d do, because I’ve always known that I had to do what I could for others like me. I didn’t know that I’d be a lawyer, but I always knew who I’d be working for,” he said.

    He goes “above and beyond” to share his knowledge of public benefit programs with attorneys, community organizations, social workers, shelter workers, and those working with victims of domestic abuse, said his colleague at Legal Action, Pat Delessio. “The legal community in Wisconsin has been lucky to have his many years of service.”

    Kent Schlienger: Giving Advice, Offering Perspective

    Kent SchliengerHotline attorney volunteers answer basic legal questions over the phone for those wondering if they need a lawyer’s services. One of those volunteers is Madison attorney Kent Schlienger, recipient of the Lawyer Hotline Attorney of the Year Award, presented by the State Bar Lawyer Referral and Information Service.

    “The Hotline experience takes me back to my general practice roots in Dodgeville during the mid and late ‘80s,” said Schlienger, who practices in business law.

    Why does he volunteer? “Callers tend to be part of a population underserved by legal services. They are grateful for someone who will listen to their problem and give them some solid advice.”

    Whether it’s a large or small issue, to the callers, the matters are important, Schlienger said. “Sometimes the best advice that you can give is perspective.”

    Elizabeth Nevitt: Helping High School Students Learn Life Skills

    Elizabeth Nevitt

    Students need many learning opportunities, says Pickett attorney Elizabeth Nevitt, recipient of the Public Education Volunteer of the Year Award from the State Bar Public Education Committee. The award caught her by surprise, she said, but those who nominated her speak of her dedication to the High School Mock Trial program, coordinating the Mock Trial regional competition in Appleton since 1997.

    “Although most of the students will probably not become lawyers, I believe they learn excellent and very helpful life skills by participating,” Nevitt said. The preparation and competition teach students to think on their feet, to look critically at various pieces of information, to speak comfortably in front of people, and to interact well with adults, among many other things.

    She participates in the competition to be “some small part of helping these students,” she said. “I see how excited they get on the day of competition. I see how much fun they have being part of a team and working together toward a common goal. I also see how smart and talented our students are. That is really the reward.”

    Join in the Celebration

    Join the State Bar in honoring these award recipients at the Member Recognition Celebration at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 15, at the State Bar 2017 Annual Meeting & Conference.

    The event is free, and all State Bar members and their friends and families are invited to celebrate these individuals at the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort in Wisconsin Dells.

    For more information, visit the Annual Conference website, register for the free celebration event on WisBar.org’s Marketplace, or call Customer Service at (800) 728-7788.

    Congratulations to these additional award recipients:

    • Hon. Donald R. Zuidmulder, Brown County Circuit Court – Lifetime Jurist

    • Hon. Frederick C. Rosa, Milwaukee County Circuit Court – Judge of the Year

    • Emily I. Lonergan, Gimbel Reilly Guerin & Brown LLP, Milwaukee – Gordon Sinykin Award of Excellence

    • Amy Ferguson, O'Melia, Schiek & McEldowney S.C., Rhinelander – Gordon Sinykin Award of Excellence

    • Gwendolyn Cooley, Wisconsin Department of Justice, Madison – Government Lawyers Division Service Award

    • Rochelle Johnson Bent, Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee Inc., Milwaukee – Young Lawyers Division Outstanding Mentor Award

    • John G. Walsh, Axley, Madison – Young Lawyers Division Outstanding Young Lawyer

    • Skip Durocher, Minneapolis – Nonresident Lawyers Division Founder's Award

    • Martin Greenberg, Milwaukee – Senior Lawyers Division Leonard L. Loeb Award

    • Hon. Thomas J. Walsh, Brown County Circuit Court – Hon. Charles Dunn Author Award

    • Douglas Klingberg, Wisconsin Judicare Inc., Wausau – Pro Bono Attorney of the Year

    • Merchant & Gould, Madison – Pro Bono Organization of the Year

    • Samantha Yee, Administrative Coordinator, Milwaukee Justice Center – Ryan Klesh Public Interest Legal Worker Award

    • Anthony Moore, Madison, and Brianna Meyer, Milwaukee – Outstanding Public Interest Law Student Awards