AMHERST, Mass. – Mike Alvarez, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is one of 30 graduate students nationwide – and the only communication candidate – to be awarded the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.
Alvarez is studying the phenomenon of cybersuicide and the social stigma of mental illness. Having spent time in the mental health system, he has said would like to help increase public understanding of psychiatric disorders. He has completed a memoir about his own journey through mental illness.
Originally from the Philippines, Alvarez moved with his family to a rough neighborhood in Jersey City, N.J. when he was 10. He recalls that the transition from a comfortable lifestyle in the Philippines to a rough Jersey City neighborhood was difficult and after several months, Alvarez’s father went home, leaving his mother as the family's sole support.
Instilled with a love for learning, he excelled at school – but, notes Alvarez, a rift was opening up in his mental world. As an undergraduate at Rutgers University, he suffered from debilitating anxiety that turned into horrifying delusions and a suicide attempt. A stay in hospital was a turning point, steering him toward the study of mental health.
Alvarez’s senior thesis on the relationship between creativity and suicide won the Charles Flaherty Award and was subsequently expanded into his master’s thesis at Goddard College.
“Stories to me are very important, as are the voices of the marginalized,” said Alvarez. “During my time as an MFA student at Goddard, I served on the editorial board of Pitkin Review, a biannual literary journal, and taught memoir workshops in and around Somerville. Simultaneously, I was crafting the beginnings of what would be my own personal narrative into and out of madness.”