Rhian (My mental health cost me my conservation career but helped me find myself)

Written by Rhian

My mental health has defined my life.  It lost me the conservation career I worked so hard for, and yet it’s helped me to grow as a person too.  I only ever tell people parts of my story when I feel overwhelmed, but never the whole thing. So, here goes.

As a child, I didn’t have a lot of stability. My dad was in the military and so we moved every few years until I was 11. For every place we lived, I always went to a couple of schools as I could never fit in.  The bullying would get so bad for me that I had preferred to move schools than stay where I was until we moved on again. It meant that my education was a bit patchy to begin with, and my dad had to teach me to read and basic maths. But I loved animals. Snakes and dolphins were the focus of my attention for several years, and I would read everything I could about them.  And Africa, I was fascinated by the wildlife and culture of Africa and made it my mission to get there one day.  My dream of working with wildlife was my driving focus to keep going and put up with the bullying until such time that I could escape, seeing as my parents had refused my repeated begging to be home schooled.  Even after settling down at one school once my dad left the military, the bullying didn’t stop.  I had to work so hard to get good grades and try and hide my knowledge gaps (when I asked in religious studies who Satan was at age 12, I didn’t hear the end of it for a long time).  I hated life.

End of 6th Form, I’d endured school and had got onto my first-choice university course in zoology.  I was excited to go, sure that I would meet like-minded people. But first, after leaving 6th Form, I got to go on a biodiversity research expedition to South Africa funded through a youth development grant.  This was my dream come true, I was so excited, and I wasn’t disappointed. I fell in love with South Africa and the bush.  The humbling experience of being surrounded by the megafauna of Africa made it feel like everything I’d endured to get to that point had been worth it. I’d found my calling.  I was going to work in African ecology and live in the bush, I naively pronounced to myself. And I was about to leave home and the hell of school.

Excitedly, I went to university with my life planned out. I met another student who’d just finished his field guiding qualification in South Africa – I was there! I ended up working two jobs non-stop over my holidays to save up the money, and eventually I save up £3,000 to go back to Africa in two years.  Yet, my mental health was taking another turn for the worse. I’d fallen into a group of friends but also a sociopath. This sociopath ended up breaking every one of us over the course of our first year and by the end of that year, two of my friends tried to take their own lives.  I was a wreck. Panic attacks, depression, anxiety through the roof. And guilt. Guilt that I didn’t try and save my friends.  We eventually broke free of this person, but the damage stayed with me for years.

Finally, I got to go back to Africa to study for my field guiding qualification. This really became a healing process for me. I was back in the environment I loved, being treated with respect and feeling freedom living in the bush for a couple of months.  This is my place, I was now qualified to work in the bush, everything was worth enduring to be here and get my career in African conservation.

Despite my mental health still being very fragile and a lot of challenges with everything that had gone on, I went back and finished my final year of undergrad.  I managed to get a free biodiversity research expedition to Indonesia and Malaysia straight out from university after working throughout my degree, and while I tell myself it was a great experience, I didn’t love it as I’d loved Africa.

After three months in Asia, I returned to my parents house. I spent a year and half trying to get a job in conservation and didn’t get a single interview.  The pressure I was putting on myself and the expectations of what I should have achieved while others I knew were working, really got to me.  As much as I’d hated school and struggled through my undergraduate, I wanted my dream so much that I signed up to do a Masters in Conservation Biology at the University of Cape Town. I had to wait a year to start but in the meantime, I worked to save money for the fees and managed to get some volunteering experience back in South Africa to oversee the data collection for biodiversity surveys in the bush.  It felt like I was getting back on track.  But while I’d loved my position, it was marred with slight bitterness when I found out that I was the only member of staff not being paid, despite needing to have had my field guiding qualification to do my role, and I was working almost every job that everyone else was doing who was getting paid: guiding, lecturing, supervising… but I was getting experience, that was all that mattered.

Cape Town 2014, the start of my Masters. I was living in South Africa, studying what I loved, and I’d even managed to impress the course director with my African bird knowledge in week 1 – I was living the dream!  But slowly, my mental health was deteriorating again. The thing is, everything in South Africa is about race and skin colour.  I started to feel so wrong being a white Westerner trying to help Africa save its wildlife. And the Masters director loved pointing out when the African students did better than us Westerners.  I was also spending all my time studying about how everything was dying, climate change, the COP conferences weren’t getting anywhere, and these were definitely not issues on the political agenda that meant anything would be solved anytime soon.  I felt overwhelming despair, not believing little me could do anything to save or change the world. This was long before the term ecoanxiety came into existence and was openly talked about, but this is what I was experiencing acutely, and I felt entirely alone with it.  Then one night, a gun shoot-out happened outside my flat two minutes after I got home.  If I’d been delayed by only two minutes, I could have been caught in it. The violent crime rate in South Africa is off the scale, and I was constantly on edge being a young woman if I was on my own or in the dark. I felt guilty for feeling this way, this is reality for people in South Africa.  But after six months of slow mental break down, it was too much for me.  I quit my dream, left my Masters and left South Africa.

Having walked away from everything I’d been working towards really broke me. The guilt for giving in, the grief of loss of my dreams and future.  But I moved to a new city, got into a relationship (that would turn out to be over three years of psychological abuse before I could escape), and eventually decided that if I couldn’t save the planet, I’ll try and help people.  I got a job in a mental health support service, and quickly rose from being the new person to running the service in about seven months! I had rock-bottom self-esteem but slowly, after some great mentoring, I was gaining confidence.  I was thrown into having to deal with behaviourally challenging people and assault, and that was as much from the staff as the mental health patients sadly. But I found a new level of confidence, even while I was still suffering from my past and now abusive partner in the background. I eventually quit after making a big mistake at work and, feeling guilty still at having left Cape Town, I got some freelance work as an ecologist.  The problem was I still hadn’t dealt with my mental health, and spending hours alone with my thoughts in the dark on bat surveys, I mentally couldn’t take having that much thinking time, and I left after a month.  I carried on with social support work, helping vulnerable people deal with everything from mental health crises to debt and benefits.  I was gaining so much confidence in myself and my ability to build relationships with people again. I realised that if I’d stayed in Cape Town for another six months to complete my Masters, I probably wouldn’t have ever found this new me.

Yet there was always this underlying guilt of giving up on my dreams. I wanted to return to my love for wildlife, but I was too scared to go for it in case I failed again. I eventually decided to go for another Masters, but this time take a more positive approach through sustainability to solve problems, rather than just learn about them.  My new confidence made studying so easy.  I had a new perspective on life, was loving what I was doing, and eventually turned my thesis into a published paper.  Ok, I can do academia again, it didn’t break me.

I was very lucky and straight out from my Masters, I got a contract at a university in Amsterdam to work on a project for the European Commission on climate change.  I realised that I now have the mental resilience to deal with other peoples’ petty temper tantrums (I’d dealt with physical assault and verbal abuse, an academic meltdown is nothing!), and that this was something people older and more experienced in life were struggling to deal with.  I still have periods of depression and constant imposter syndrome, but I manage to not let it overwhelm me as it once might have.

I was asked about doing a PhD before even arriving for my new job, and over the course of a year and a half of working in an academic environment, I’ve decided to give it one last shot at going for my dream by doing a PhD in conservation.  The problem is, my CV now looks all over the place to an outsider who hasn’t been on my mental heath journey.  I’ve had my motivation and integrity questioned so ruthlessly during one interview that, despite my initial reasonable response that I’d left my Masters in Cape Town due to health reasons, I got to the point where I broke down in tears and had to explain that I’d had a breakdown to make them back off and understand why my CV is what it is.  Despite that, I do overall feel more mentally resilient, mature and capable of working in wildlife conservation than if I’d stayed that extra six months in Cape Town and have a piece of paper to say that I have ‘the right’ Masters in Conservation Biology.  I fear that my history is still holding me back though.  But right now, I’m carrying on with my PhD applications, hoping that I might one day return to the conservation career I always wanted.

For more of Rhian, check out @rhian_178 on Instagram or @Rhian14800441 on Twitter

Jessie Panazzolo

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Hi! I am the founder of Lonely Conservationists and I am a proud conservationist conservationist- someone who works to save those who are saving the world 🌍

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