Law, medicine intersect in new mental health training for judges

ASU Law alums lead interdisciplinary project with help from Mayo Clinic

October 2, 2023

On the surface, there might not appear to be many similarities between law and medicine.

However, a deeper look reveals both disciplines draw intellectually curious, focused people who have the desire to help others — often at the most vulnerable points of their lives. The work can be strenuous and emotionally taxing. A group of men and women smile in a courtyard. A group of doctors from Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and students at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University worked together with legal professionals to create mental health training modules for judges in Arizona. From left to right: Patricia Starr, Zuzana Skarkova, Dr. Robert Bright, John Klyver, Nicole Kazan and Dr. Shweta Kapoor. Photo by Tabbs Mosier/Arizona State University Download Full Image

Knowing this, a group of ASU Law alums are hoping a new training program they developed will help prepare judges and attorneys to better handle mental health issues in and around their work. The program aims to teach compassion in dealing with those suffering from mental health issues and encourage judges to care for themselves when faced with trauma in the courtroom.

“Judges have very little to no training in mental illness and mental health,” said Patricia Starr, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge who inspired the program and participated in editing and narrating. “… Yet in every department in our court, we have litigants who have suffered trauma or are living with a mental illness. We also deal with attorneys, staff, crime victims and others with the same challenges. We are also exposed to secondary trauma, or even firsthand trauma on a regular basis.”

Where law and medicine collide

The idea for the training program came about in 2021 when John Klyver, a student in the dual Juris Doctor and Medical Degree program offered through a partnership between the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine in Phoenix, attended a talk on mental health and the law given by Starr.

Klyver had previously worked in public health in rural Haiti and saw how often law and policy interacted with the health field.

“Much of what I saw while working in Haiti was how difficult it could be to get community health stakeholders onto the same page,” he said. “There's a large transdisciplinary element to global health work, making policy decisions with very limited resources. Medical decisions require medical knowledge, but advocacy and political realities are just as important to effective care. I saw the dual degree as a pathway to better advocate for and support community-led health projects around the world."

After Starr’s talk, Klyver and then Master of Legal Studies student Nicole Kazan began to discuss what judges face when handling mental health issues in the court system. Kazan, who now works at Solari, Arizona’s suicide hotline, had a master's degree in social work and had previously been a social worker. She had seen firsthand how often medical professionals, lawyers and judges have to conduct their own social work in cases without the proper training to do so.

“Mental health is so important to everyone, but especially in careers that are demanding and complex, and you take on a lot of people's problems when you work on cases,” she said. “I just think it's critical to be able to check in with oneself and have access to support and what people need.”

Along with fellow ASU student Zuzana Skarkova on board to handle animationThe animation was overseen by Skarkova and created by a group of ASU undergraduate student interns., Klyver and Kazan formed a team and began work on the educational mental health modules for judges in Arizona. The team eventually grew to include Starr, Judge Bruce Cohen and Dr. Robert Bright and Dr. Shweta Kapoor, both with the Mayo Clinic at the time.

Slide from a mental health training module about the symptoms of mental illness.

A new training program developed by ASU students, legal professionals and Mayo Clinic doctors will help prepare judges and attorneys to better handle mental health issues in and around their work. The program's training modules aim to teach compassion in dealing with those suffering from mental health issues and encourage judges to care for themselves when faced with trauma in the courtroom. Photo courtesy the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Eighteen months of work later, the team had developed five researched, animated and narrated modules designed to assist members of the court in identifying and understanding the impact of their work on the mental health of themselves and others.

Module One introduces mental health diagnoses and common terms used in their study. Module Two focuses on how diagnoses may present in the courtroom. Module Three discusses social work, including de-escalation techniques and how to respond to someone having a mental health episode. Module Four centers on identifying judges' triggers and regulating their emotions. The fifth and final module looks at vicarious trauma, or the emotions that can result from exposure to other people’s trauma, and how that can present among judges working with intense cases.

Initially intended for Maricopa County mental health court judges, the training modules are now available to judges throughout Arizona and across the country.

Future expansion

Going forward, the team hopes to expand the program to more professional groups, especially as mental health becomes less stigmatized.

Kapoor, who now works at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans’ Administration Medical Center and recently launched her own pyschotherapeutic practice, Kalm Psychiatry, spoke to the inclination of those in the medical field to forsake their own mental health in the interest of maintaining that of their patients.

“Many of us become so focused on the well-being of our patients … we forget we are individuals as well with emotional needs and finite emotional resources,” she said. “… by normalizing emotional reactions, encouraging more self-reflection, honoring our own humanity, and recognizing our emotional pain points, physicians, judges and lawyers can become so much more effective, with much less burnout and distress.”

Kapoor became involved in the development of Module Four on emotional regulation, but she became so invested in the project that she elected to stay on until it was finished.

“It’s OK to be a human while being a physician or a judge or a lawyer; these are not mutually exclusive. In fact, our humanity enriches our professional work by bringing in more compassion and empathy,” she said. “Our humanity is actually our biggest strength.”

Lindsay Walker

Communications Manager, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Students gain valuable experience, scholarships in annual speech and debate competition

Applications for 2024 Regents' Cup now open

October 3, 2023

Arizona State University student Chase DiBona thought competing in the Regents’ Cup would be a good way to improve his oratory skills, but the rewards he gained were so much more.

“I was already a member of the mock trial team here at ASU, and this seemed like a great opportunity to develop my public speaking skills,” he said of the annual speech and debate competition sponsored by the Arizona Board of Regents that he participated in in 2022. Microphone. Photo credit Pixabay Download Full Image

That year, DiBona and his debate partner, fellow ASU student Claire Mullings, won in the Oxford Debate category and each received a $15,000 scholarship. The topic of their final round was whether or not the current political system is able to effectively maintain checks and balances on each branch of the government.

“It was absolutely a life-changing experience. I was stunned when I found out that we had won, for sure,” said DiBona, a junior in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU double majoring in civic and economic thought and leadership and justice studies.

“I can definitely say that the scholarship has helped me massively as I've pursued my education. I'm incredibly thankful to the Board of Regents and the sponsors of the Regents' Cup for their generosity,” he added.

The fifth annual Regents' Cup will take place on March 23, 2024, at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU. It will be centered around the theme Democracy, Justice, and the Rule of Law. Applications are now open and any student from ASU, University of Arizona or Northern Arizona University may apply, regardless of former debate experience. The application deadline is Oct. 16.

The Regents' Cup celebrates civil discourse and freedom of expression at Arizona’s public universities and honors participants for articulating different points of view in an environment where competitors remain civil and respectful.

Students compete in Oxford Debate or persuasive storytelling, sharing true stories from personal experiences.

The board awards generous scholarships for winners: $15,000 for first place; $12,000 for second; and $5,000 for third. All other team members receive a $500 scholarship.

Portrait of ASU student .

Chase DiBona

Students may use scholarship funds at their discretion to support and advance their education. Students are also eligible to receive internship or course credit.

The winning university team receives a trophy called the Regents’ Cup, designed, sculpted and cast in bronze by accomplished artist and former Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers. Bowers said he designed the trophy to incorporate the delicate features of a lily pad and the sharp points of an agave cactus to represent opposing viewpoints.

University teams are selected in October, and on-campus coaches prepare students for the competition in March.

Beyond developing public speaking and debate skills and winning a substantial scholarship, DiBona said he benefitted in other ways.

He learned to analyze two sides of an issue and prepare arguments supporting each side, helping him understand differing values and perspectives. 

“Initially I wasn’t sure if I would have the time to compete in the Regents' Cup, but I’m glad I ended up joining, because it has proven to be an incredibly rewarding opportunity. I think people should do it because of the connections, opportunities and skills you gain from the competition,” he said.

Portrait of ASU student .

Acacia Wastchak

Acacia Wastchak, a senior Barrett Honors College student majoring in international trade and a first-year master’s student in global management, participated in the Regents’ Cup in 2021 and 2022.

Wastchak already had some public speaking experience, but felt that the opportunity to compete with students from various backgrounds and all three of Arizona’s universities was “too exciting to pass up.”

“I learned a lot about how to tailor a speech to a specific audience as well as the ins and outs of high-level public speaking. All of this made me a better public speaker, which will ultimately benefit me in my career, as I hope to become a U.S. diplomat,” she said.

Omar Aljubouriy, a junior criminal justice major, competed in the storytelling category last year, sharing his unique perspective on liberty and the U.S. Constitution as an asylum seeker from Iraq.

“The Regents’ Cup taught me more than I thought it would. Of course, I polished my storytelling and became more confident, but I learned different perspectives my peers had on liberty and the Constitution. The students who competed were incredibly diverse, and learning about their beliefs was the most valuable lesson,” Aljubouriy said.

Jenny Brian, Barrett Honors College faculty chair, has been a Regents’ Cup coach for four years.

She said ASU won the Regents’ Cup in 2019 and 2021, while UA won in 2022 and 2023, adding that over the past four years, ASU students have been awarded more than $200,000 in scholarships.

Portrait of ASU student .

Omar Aljubouriy

“The competition is special because it really is a meaningful celebration of civil discourse, and it is the students who model for all of us the free and respectful exchange of ideas,” she said.

Brian said students discuss difficult topics in a complicated and nuanced way, anticipating counterarguments and responding thoughtfully while being judged by influential figures from across the state and the country — including former elected officials, local and national journalists, federal judges, university professors, and executives from groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the Arizona Community Foundation.

“My students gain so much from the competition. Not only have they learned a lot about the topics, but they have developed research skills, critical thinking skills, communication skills, and they build professional and peer networks at the tournament,” Brian said.

“The Arizona Board of Regents dedicates remarkable time, resources and energy to celebrating our students, and it is a powerful experience for the judges, moderators and students. As a coach, it is such an honor to help students find their voices and then watch them be almost unbelievably impressive.”

Nicole Greason

Director of Marketing and Public Relations , Barrett, The Honors College