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NAMI speaker Hakeem Rahim shows students how to thrive with mental illness 

Healing Words

click to enlarge Rahim says acceptance is key. - AUSTIN HENDERSON
  • Austin Henderson
  • Rahim says acceptance is key.

If Uniondale High School were a movie, Hakeem Rahim would have been the star. He won homecoming king, graduated as his school's first male African-American valedictorian, and headed to Harvard University at age 17.

Then came the sequel. Freshman year was fun. Rahim joined Harvard's cheerleading squad, earned good grades, attended parties and made friends. But he soon began experiencing anxiety and depression, and his first manic episode came at the end of second semester. He roamed the streets of his neighborhood "possessed with a prophetic delusion," he'd later testify in Congress.

The following spring, Rahim was hospitalized for a second manic episode, this one involving visions of Jesus and talking cars.

That's when Rahim discovered the reason for his soaring delusions and crippling lows: a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. But mental illness didn't stop Rahim from going back to school for what he'd later call one of the hardest periods of his life. He gained weight on psychiatric meds, regularly slept for more than 12 hours at a time and quit wrestling and cheerleading. It proved too much, and Rahim moved back home.

That wasn't the end of Rahim's story, though. He eventually returned to Harvard, finished his degree, went on to Columbia University for graduate school, and worked as an academic adviser, college counselor and life coach. From there, he started his own mental health-focused consulting company, Live Breathe, LLC, and nonprofit, I Am Acceptance. In addition to his congressional testimony, he's presented at a TEDx conference, and has shared his story with more than 65,000 students across the country so far — all while managing his mental illness.

Rahim will speak at a free symposium on mental health in minority communities organized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Colorado Springs, Empowering Minds Nurturing Souls, Inc., Madeline Arroyo, BA, Michel Cremeans, MA, NCC, Dr. Nathaniel Granger Jr., PsyD, Dr. Tiko Hardy, LCSW, PsyD, and Norma Thibodeau, BA. The No More Secrets conference will be held on Oct. 5 and 6 at The Antlers, A Wyndham Hotel, and you can register at namicoloradosprings.org.

Rahim also plans to speak at local schools while he's in town. He's eager to help de-stigmatize mental illness for students in the Pikes Peak region, where teen suicide has lately been an issue that's top of mind for educators and mental health professionals.

A spate of youth suicides in 2015 and 2016 shocked El Paso County, with 29 deaths over the two-year period. This year's data might suggest the trend is slowing: There have been two suicides so far this year in the 10-17 age group, compared to 11 at this time in 2017, according to Susan Wheelan, the county's interim health director.

The Independent spoke with Rahim about his journey with bipolar disorder, and asked him to weigh in on stigma surrounding mental health in minority communities, youth mental illness and struggles like those seen in El Paso County.

What made you decide to go back to Harvard and finish your degree? Was there a moment when things turned around for the better?

For me it was never a question of whether I was going to finish. I was always going to finish. It was always about finding new ways to be able to cobble together the resources that I needed, whether it be tutoring, friends, support groups, etc.

How have you learned to accept and approach your own mental illness with your busy schedule and host of commitments? What keeps you going?

I Am Acceptance, that's the name of my nonprofit. And acceptance to me, I define it as the bridge between awareness and action. So we can be aware that we need help, that something's wrong, that something's out of balance, but until you accept there is something wrong you may not take action on it, or you may not be committed to taking the action over and over again.

The talk that I'm going to give when I come to Colorado is called "Living, loving and thriving with a mental illness." And in the talk I talk about the choices that I believe I have to make, and in some ways we all have to make to move from diagnosis of a condition to overall [wellness]. One of the choices is acceptance, the other one is self-care, and the other one is treatment.

Acceptance is looking at the shame, looking at what you've been through and [making] a daily choice to say: "I still take medications, and taking them is a form of acceptance that my body is different. I've been through something, but it's OK." I acknowledge that it's something that I need for my wellness. The other choice I have to make is treatment. So for me, that looks like med management. I don't do therapy now but I have a coach. In that coaching, we explore different ideas around internal psychological processes.

And then, life strategies and self care. So daily I meditate, sometimes for half an hour, 40 minutes, an hour a day. I journal, take time off and rest and [listen to] music.

And then the other piece is the ongoing choices for wellness, which includes knowing that I haven't failed, because I get depressed. I struggled recently, within the last month, with meds and adjusting levels again. ... I had to accept that there was still a need for meds, and that I didn't fail because I went into depression and anxiety, but it was part of my journey. So how we think about mental illness and our mental health is as important as how we treat it and how we take care of ourselves.

Would you look at it kind of as an ongoing journey, then?

A hundred percent. A hundred percent. Acceptance is an ongoing journey, and wellness is an ongoing journey. And I think sometimes we can say, "I'm looking to get better," versus, "I'm looking to do well and live well."

You know, people with mental health challenges are very, very intelligent, and how we conceptualize ourselves is also very important. My first therapist and psychiatrist — I was with him for nine years — he talked about Hamlet. I was 19 years old, he talked about Hamlet and depression, because he understood that I needed perspective on who I was in the world along with my meds, along with the right treatment. So it is an ongoing process, and it's also about how you think about yourself and how you think about the world.

Mental illness is something you tend to daily. It's not about getting better, it's about 'how do I live well?' I believe.

What would you say to a young person who's not sure they can accomplish their goals after mental illness sets in — whether that's school, a dream job, or traveling the world?

One, it's okay to talk about what you're going through. There's a lot of shame around struggling with anything... There's a lot of shame around being different, mental illness or otherwise, so one of the things is [realizing] it's OK to talk about what you're going through.

Two, it's important to be able to get help, and there's no shame in seeking help. If [therapy] is something that's going to allow you to do your best in school, be your best person, be your best self, it doesn't matter what [others] think. That can be hard to overcome because your peers are a key part of your life. Find a community of people who may not be in your close circle of friends, but understand your process — maybe they have a similar condition.

And then the other piece is that diagnosis of a condition is not the end, so knowing that there's hope. [I use] my life journey as a tool to one, de-stigmatize [mental illness], and show that you can go through something like leaving school and coming back to school and really struggling and suffering — crying alone in your dorm room and being in a single versus being in a room with your roommates, like you were before, because they don't understand what's going on.

And then also self-care. Managing self-care is important, so making the choice to take care of yourself and to get the treatment that you need. Especially if you have a first episode or are at a critical moment, your job right now is not to pass your next class, not to pass your next test. It is to get better.

I look at depression, or clinical depression or severe anxiety, as almost like a broken arm in the sense that it is in a critical state, and you have to treat it — first is triage, and then is maintenance, and then healing, right? So if you have a manic episode, you may need to rest, you may need to take your meds, you may need to reduce stimulation. But that's only for a period of time. Just like a broken arm, you have a cast, you have a sling, but you're not going to have a cast forever. Where you are now is not where you will always be.

A big mantra that I share with students is, "Where I am is not who I am." Part of mental illness for me is that it makes you turn in on yourself. Whether it's depression (you're the worst person in the world, nothing's ever going to change), whether it's anxiety (everybody's looking at me, something's wrong with me), whether it's mania (my perspective of the world is what the world is), mental illness very much turns in on itself and it can make you feel like this moment is an encapsulation of your life.

Why do you think there is stigma around mental health in minority communities? How do we begin to change that?

The historical context and especially the church is a big part of communities of color. I think having a fluency around what mental illness is in spiritual communities, faith-based communities, and understanding that spirituality is part of the human process and not the only answer to a mental health challenge. Looking at schools and faith-based organizations, and educating, and having the fluency and literacy around mental illness, is so important so we can get the right help.

So I think the first thing is education, which is so great with this conference. And then the second piece is around contact. A de-stigmatization model noted by researcher Patrick Corrigan [has] two components: One is contact with somebody who's doing well with the de-stigmatized issue, and the other part is education.

I think for so long in communities of color and communities under stress and duress, we can operate at a level that seems normal, but really there's a lot of trauma, there's a lot of sadness, there can be a lot of dysfunction, but because we've been able to endure, it can seem like that's our operating level. So really identifying, OK: What is depression, what is anxiety, gaining fluency around what that looks like; and then knowing what to do, how do we begin to get the help that we need.

What additional challenges do you think minority communities face when it comes to mental health?

Not having access to the right services, whether it be the ability to get to the services, whether it be [having] services in the community, or the ability to pay. Access is huge. Another piece is culturally competent care, so care from providers who understand your life experience. The percentages of [care providers] of color who are in these mental health spaces are very low. Somebody who understands your life experience, journey — sometimes it can be somebody that looks like you, sometimes it's not. But the proper care is also so important. [So is] having support around you and having people be OK with you being able to get that help that you need.

El Paso County has experienced a high number of teen suicides in recent years. In light of that, how do we address mental illness in schools, and what should we do for students who have had friends or classmates commit suicide?

I think one of the big challenges that I've seen in schools is parents. When I testified before the Senate committee for the Mental Health [Reform] Act of 2016, Sen. Chris Murphy [D-Connecticut] asked me what are some of the biggest challenges, and one of them is having parents understand and learn about mental illness. Because if their child understands that something is wrong, but parents are not comfortable, for whatever reason — whether it's guilt or whether it's shame — to admit their son or daughter needs proper treatment, that can be a hurdle.

So I think one core part of this is educating the parents. The other is having teachers be aware of what mental illness looks like, so teacher training. That's some of the work that I do through my company, Live Breathe, LLC. I speak to teachers and faculty and administrators, not to train them to be mental health professionals, but to raise the awareness, which can then turn really to decreasing stigma, being able to not judge the individual but really look at their students in composites.

Also, a big part of my work is with youth engagement. Part of it is through my nonprofit, I Am Acceptance. In I Am Acceptance, we work on college campuses and [are] cultivating the next generation of emotionally intelligent leaders. We're educating about mental health, wellness, acceptance, self-acceptance, and part of it is about empowering young people to be leaders.

Funding is a huge concern as well, and having administrators who see the importance of integrating mental health and the social-emotional piece of the child, of the individual, throughout the day.

When did you decide that this was what you wanted to do as your career?

There was always some inkling in me to do the work that I'm doing now. I switched my major to psychology after I'd been diagnosed, and I think the reason why I switched was some part of me wanted to understand what I was going through.

I went to graduate school at Columbia University Teacher's College for psychological health. I was trained as a counselor and academic adviser. I worked in the Bronx with juveniles from the criminal justice system and I started doing therapy with adults, but it was triggering to me, so it wasn't the right fit. So I ended up with my externship working at a college campus. I worked as academic adviser and college counselor. I then also did life-coaching training.

In 2012 — I always knew that there was something more for me. I loved helping students figure out what they wanted to do with their lives as an administrator and a college counselor, but there was a part of me that still wanted to share my journey.

I thought I would be judged and maybe even pushed out of my position if I spoke openly [about my mental health], but I knew that was what I wanted to do. So 12 years after I'd been diagnosed I still didn't openly share my journey, and that didn't feel right to me, didn't feel authentic. So I wrote out my purpose statement using some of my coaching tools, and I said, "I want to use my gifts, skills and talents to empower others to speak with an authentic voice."

And I found NAMI, the local NAMI chapter, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and I was able to work with their In Our Own Voice program. The In Our Own Voice program is a phenomenal program where people who have mental health challenges go into communities to do de-stigmatization work, education and contact.

I've always been speaking, I've always been writing poetry and sharing, and putting those things together — identifying a platform like NAMI and then branching off and starting my nonprofit, having my company — it really has opened an alignment up I believe in why I went through what I went through... in a very beautiful, beautiful way.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I think also family, and having that support structure, is very important. So I'm very grateful for the support around me. My family was very crucial in picking me up from campus and getting me the help that I needed. Even if it's not immediate family, but supportive housing or assistance in getting better and getting well, that's so important. Relationships are very important. I just got married this summer.

Congratulations!

Thank you very much. People always ask, "If you have a mental illness, can you be in a relationship?" People want to be with somebody who takes care of themselves, whether they have a mental illness or not. You can have trust issues and not have a mental illness but be difficult to be in a relationship with. So along with thanking my family, [I'm] grateful for my wife, who is very open, and because of who she is it helps me be who I am.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the full list of conference organizers, and to correct the name and title of the the county's interim health director, Susan Wheelan. We regret the errors.

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