Advocate Hakeem Rahim promotes mental health discussion at MHC


Hakeem Rahim had one goal for the intimate crowd of students and counselors who gathered for his mental health and wellness talk in Gamble Auditorium last Friday afternoon: “We’re going to leave here knowing it’s okay to talk about what you’re going through,” he said. As a mental health awareness advocate, Rahim has been visiting schools all over the country trying to initiate conversations about mental illness. Mount Holyoke College was the most recent stop on his I Am Acceptance College Tour. 

Part of Rahim’s method of making mental illness an easier topic to discuss is to point out the prevalence of mental illness among young people. “Right now is really the time when mental illnesses and mental health conditions are really striking,” he said. “So this is why we are talking about, recognizing, and seeing what’s there.” 

According to Rahim, half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14. By age 24, three-quarters of these cases will have manifested themselves. In spite of this, Rahim said, over 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions do not seek help due to the stigma that surrounds talking about mental illness. 

Rahim hoped to help break down that stigma at Mount Holyoke through storytelling. So, over the course of his presentation, he chose to share four stories, three from college students living with anxiety, depression and eating disorders, and a final one from his personal experience.

Rahim shared that his journey with mental illness started in the fall of his freshman year at Harvard College in 1998, where he had his first anxiety attack. By the spring of his sophomore year, he had experienced a manic episode so severe that his parents admitted him to a psychiatric hospital in Cambridge, Mass. There, Rahim was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and he began to receive medicinal treatment for his condition. Rahim returned to Harvard after taking a year off, but the road to recovery still had its difficulties. Rahim became a psychology major in order to better grasp what was happening to him. But he also had a desire to have the people around him understand what he was going through. This was the beginning of his path towards mental health advocacy.

Rahim wants people to recognize that there is more to him than his bipolar disorder. “This tour is not called ‘I Am My Mental Illness,’” he said. “It’s called ‘I Am Acceptance.’” Therefore, in addition to starting conversations about mental illness at his presentation, Rahim promoted the idea of wellness. “It’s not the absence of illness,” he said. “It’s leading our best lives.” 

He showed the audience a calming trick courtesy of one of his friends. Rahim hoped that along with that trick, the students in the audience would take his message beyond the confines of Gamble Auditorium. “What stays in here will not improve anyone else’s world,” he told them.

The message got through to Julia Beneck ’19, a student in attendance. “It really affected me,” she said. “I was in tears practically there because I was struggling a lot in high school and I didn’t feel like I could talk to people because of the stigma around mental illness,” said Rahim. “Being able to hear other people’s stories and know that it does get better and that you can talk to people and that you shouldn’t be afraid to [talk] really helped.”