Mental illness has been a part of my life for a long time. My very first article on anxiety, written for one of Guyana’s (my home country’s) newspapers, Stabroek News, spoke about my first run-in with mental illness, or rather, potentially, the outcome of untreated mental illness(s) – the loss of my close friend to suicide. Obviously, this sets up the seriousness of where it all came from for me. Personally, this is my one reason for carrying on: so that no one around me would have to ever feel that way. It was also me sharing with quite a bit of vulnerability, trying to get people to pay attention to a problem: Guyana, my home country, had the highest suicide rate in the world in 2014, and I felt first-hand a lot of the reasons why that might be the case. That very same year, I came down with the worst bout of what I thought was only anxiety but was also a full depressive episode, fuelled by my untreated attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – combined presentation (ADHD-C). In the course of having to navigate getting help for the very first time, I felt the stigma and the difficulty in accessing care – and I was determined to have no one else feel the same way.
In this blog, I want to discuss the importance of having good mentors in academia and how they can make a difference in a student’s life. I also share my personal experience with mental illness and how I have become an advocate for change. I also wish to stress the importance of recognizing that one cannot help others when one needs help oneself, and that stepping away from important things can be as helpful for yourself as it can be for others.
Commencing the Academic Journey
There are many people who are notorious throughout academia as terrible people for some reason or the other. Maybe because they don’t treat their students as people, or they encourage unhealthy working habits in some way, but this isn’t a story about them. There are far too many stories about those kinds of mentors and not enough about these kinds. This is a story about how two mentors took in a wayward Guyanese soul who was on a wild quest to take on Criminology, having only done one project in the human dimensions of wildlife conservation. They saw me through starting off in a new country and a new field, having overcome some personal and academic hurdles, and guided me through tough times and good times. And when I really needed it, they showed me that they were there for me, and they had my best intentions at heart.
My mentors (and many others) truly supported me throughout what was a rather difficult year for me with a pandemic and lots of life changes going on. Especially the studying Criminology bit. Anyone who has ever said a full disciplinary shift is easy is lying. But I’m doing it. And I’m having fun. Graduate school isn’t always the easiest – and my advisors remind me that it isn’t going to be, but I genuinely do enjoy it, because my advisors remind me how much it’s worth it. They talk about their own years when they went through similar experiences, and remind me that I’m not alone, I really believe they understand, in some way, what I’m going through. They have been a fountain of patience and kindness. As I become more independent and find my footing in my new interdisciplinary space, I hope to repay them through being a healthy and productive student, driving new ideas and adding to their work too.
Through their mentorship and encouragement, I am becoming better at something I love. Through that, I am becoming better at something very fundamental being a better person – being a better version of myself. My advisors, through their mentorship, encourage and foster my personal and professional development, shielding me from the worst of academia until I can manage it on my own, while encouraging me to find my own footing and path myself through careful, guided exploration of my interests.
Taking Time for Me
My personal experience with mental illness has led me to an important realisation: as a student, I need to take time out to look after myself. As mentioned, initially I thought I only had generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), but I was also dealing with major depressive disorder (MDD), all overshadowed by, arguably the most impactful diagnosis: ADHD. ADHD isn’t always a problem, in itself (in my view), but rather, untreated and unmanaged, it can be rather damaging to someone’s life and their self-esteem. The fact that I went undiagnosed until I was in my late 20’s is damage done, and it’s time I can never have back. I blame no one, because it’s just the reality of living in an underdeveloped nation such as Guyana. It was definitely evident to me, though, that just even having access to a diagnosis and care was a function of my privilege. I wanted to help others so they wouldn’t feel the same way I did.
Since my diagnosis in 2014, I have done a lot and grown quite a bit as a person. Now I make the time for all of me: my relationships, my passions, my personal wellbeing, and especially my academic life. It will all be better for it. Stepping back from advocacy can feel like you are failing others, but it is more than okay to focus on yourself.
This has meant taking time off from my academic work, but with a fantastic and supportive advisory team and department, this was a smooth process. In fact, there was little effort needed on my end, because I wasn’t fully well yet and they knew that. My advisors were important throughout all this, and I am as well as I am now partially because of their support. Overall, I want to make clear that this isn’t so much a story about me: It’s a story about having good mentorship, trust, listening, and compassion.
Advocating for Better
I have also become known as an advocate for mental health. Sharing my experience started with gradually talking to people around me. I began sharing with friends, some of whom I’d never felt like I could really share any of this stuff with. I just started talking about it. I wanted to share that part of me, what I’d been through, how much of a different person I was on the other end, and how much better I felt. I also shared that anyone who felt comfortable (and wanted to disclose) could come and talk to me about what therapy was like, so on and so forth. Not everyone was welcoming, but most people were kind and genuinely tried to understand. Well, it’s me, and I eventually wrote a whole article about it, and my blog and social media became a space of sharing from time to time, and little by little, I became an advocate.
I hadn’t thought about it, but I’d been fighting that fight for a long time – since I was 15 when I lost my first friend. Looking back, I feel like my journey was shaped by the experiences of my friends and loved ones as well as my own. Yet trauma is relived each time in some way, and with each friend lost, it felt like it was just getting worse. Mental health advocacy can be a thankless job. You rarely hear of the lives you’ve changed, and sometimes, laws don’t change overnight. But I made an effort and tried really hard, and I think I got somewhere in the end. I got an award, recognition, and most importantly, people have told me so many times how much something I wrote or said helped or changed their life in some way. That’s the work I’m most proud of – the silent work no one sees. Every person who has ever reached out to say thank you – I thank you. You kept me going and helped me remind myself that I was making a difference.
In the end, I have made it through what was a pretty tough two years through compassion and kindness shown to me by many others, especially my mentors, and others in my academic department(s) and throughout my life. They reminded me that you can only be your best when you’re feeling your best, and that it’s okay to make decisions based on my needs. They encouraged the growth of my confidence through entertaining my wild ideas – many of them weren’t good, I admit, but some are either part of my research already or be used in future.
I am grateful to all my mentors, every single one of them, and I hope everyone has the chance to be mentored by people who view you as humans. Your mentors aren’t perfect – they’re learning too. But if you choose the right people and make decisions based on how you feel about someone and whether they will support you, they can really make a difference in not just your academic life, but your life on a whole.
Overall, being the best in your academic life means being the best in your whole life, not just your research or your courses, but your wellness, and your sense of self, among other things. Sometimes that means needing to step away from commitments or take time off to manage the other parts of your life. Sometimes it means taking a break, even for a short time.
It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to need help.
It’s okay to reach out for help.
It’s okay to take time for yourself.
And if you find yourself in an environment that is not supportive, it is okay to go out and find better.
I say that as much for you, as I do for me too. We’re all in this together.
Meshach Pierre is a Master’s student in Criminology at the University of Florida. Despite his formal area of current study, Meshach has never formally studied social science at the degree level before this. He has a BSc in Biology from the University of Guyana and a PgDip in International Wildlife Conservation Practice (ICWP) from the University of Oxford. He studied birds and jaguars for many years, then, fostered an interest in studying people because he realized that although he couldn’t convince a jaguar not to kill someone’s cow, realising if maybe he understood people’s lives in the landscapes he worked in, he could maybe work with people (rather than against them) on the reasons people kill jaguars. He aims to, through his work, enable Indigenous and local communities to manage their own lands through respectful and collaborative research.
If you’d like to learn about himself or his work (and other interests), please visit his professional website at http://www.meshachpierre.com