Justin, Maguire Fellow in Nashville

Justin B. is a graduate student studying religious ethics. He was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2017 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. He is spending the summer volunteering with Open Table Nashville, which serves low-income and homeless populations.

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Not The Blog Post I Wanted To Write

This is not the blog post I wanted to write, nor the one I thought I would write when the summer began. But it is I think the most important one I will write for readers of this blog.

I figured that it was likely that in working with folks experiencing homelessness that I would write about mental illness, I just did not think it would be my own mental illness about which I would write. All summer I have been fighting nearly debilitating depression and anxiety. It is a well-known, if rarely talked about, fact that Ph.D. students have an alarmingly high rate of mental and emotional illness. The stress of the pursuit of a doctoral degree along with the pressures of publishing, conference presentations, fellowships, community service endeavors, and looking for future jobs, not to mention responsibilities not part of academia like family commitments, possible religious obligations, friendships, and the elusive, but necessary, attempt to find time for self-care all add up to a mental break waiting to happen.

For me, the break happened right around the time I started my summer as a Maguire fellow. The weekend before my Maguire fellowship responsibilities were to begin, I presented at an academic conference, then I had my first comprehensive exam scheduled right after my first week working in Nashville. The stress of prepping for a conference and studying for a major exam, along with the whiplash of being back and forth from the streets to the academy, might have just been too much for my brain to take. To be candid, I have dealt with anxiety and depression for most of my life, but it had been 20 years since it had hit as hard as it did this summer.

Between researching on community land trusts, the adaptive reuse of churches for affordable housing, and accompanying people experiencing homelessness on their journey toward stability, it has been an intellectually and emotionally exhausting but very rewarding summer. Through it all I have had countless phone conversations with my doctor’s office (since I was in another state and could not actually go in for appointments), added and adjusted medications, fought through crippling depression and anxiety attacks, and frankly, had to readjust my schedule and cancel a number of meetings. I am thankful that the leadership at Open Table Nashville is made up of people who understand mental illness, and thus who have been very gracious to me by allowing me to work as I have been able, to adjust meeting times, and generally surrounded me with encouragement and kindness.

Some of the cocktail of medications that help me with my mental health.

I guess the best way to wrap up this post is to simply remind folks that mental illness is real, and it often doesn’t make any sense. In my case, I’ve been able to spend the summer doing work I love with people I adore. I got to be in my favorite city, and my family was able to come stay there all summer as well. I mean, for goodness sakes, I am writing for this blog because I am the recipient of a fellowship at a major university. I should be happy. But, mental illness doesn’t work like that. In short, it seems to me that this post is really a plea. For those of you who don’t suffer from mental illness, please be supportive of those who do even when you do not understand it. For those of you, especially among my Ph.D.-seeking colleagues at SMU, who do suffer from mental illness, I want to exhort you to seek help.

I just had my first session with SMU’s very fine counseling services, and I will have another appointment this week. I am hoping that with the support of my family, friends, colleagues, and professors, a cocktail of medications, and the psychiatric care at SMU that I will be able to wrap up my Maguire fellowship with excellence and enter the new semester with my mental health improving day by day. If you are a student fighting through mental illness, I hope that you, too, will seek and find the help you need.

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