August 8, 2017 Each year over 1,100 college students — the size of some graduating classes — die by suicide. One in four students in general has a diagnosable mental health condition; over 50 percent suffer from anxiety that negatively impacts their academic progress; and thousands drop out of school as a direct result of a mental health condition.
I know these statistics well because I was one of them. As a thriving survivor and advocate for mental health awareness, my mission is to let every young person know that no matter how great the struggle may seem in the moment, where you are is not who you are.
Case in point: I was a sophomore at Harvard University in 2000 when I experienced my second manic episode. After two weeks of sleeping just a few hours a night, I saw Jesus on a Cambridge street corner and heard cars talking. Thankfully, my college roommate called my parents who immediately made the terrifying, hours-long drive to Cambridge.
The next day, my parents admitted me to a psychiatric hospital in Queens, NY, where I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I immediately started taking medication and began my long, winding, and often terrifying journey toward recovery and wellness.
Like the over 64 percent of college students who are diagnosed with a mental illness do, I dropped out of college. But, with the love and support of family and friends, the right psychiatric treatment, and fierce determination, I returned to Harvard and in 2004 graduated with honors.
I went on to earn two master’s degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University, and I’m now a mental health advocate who has shared my story with over 50,000 college, high school, and middle school students.
Three quarters of all lifetime mental illness onsets begin by age 25, so colleges are quite literally epicenters of mental health challenges. That also makes them the perfect epicenters for mental health education and the kind of conversations that diminish any sense of shame and breed acceptance.
Out of my struggles with my mental illness, I began speaking on college campuses to spread the message of acceptance, awareness, and hope.
In 2016, I launched a nonprofit called I AM ACCEPTANCE, whose mission is to decrease the stigma of mental illness, promote awareness, and empower college students to have full control over their wellness.
Our presentation introduces students to our Acceptance Formula and Acceptance Path, empowering them with the knowledge and comfort that a diagnosis isn’t a death sentence and that life beyond it is limitless.
Photo Credit: Lance Lijewski.
We visited 10 colleges in seven states and one in Jamaica, reaching over 1,500 students with our powerful mental health presentation and message of acceptance.
At a tour stop at the University of Kentucky, one student bravely called me while in a moment of crisis. After ten minutes of supportive conversation, the student took the bold and courageous step to head to the counseling center for help.
Now imagine how many more students are suffering alone in silence, desperate for permission to reach out for help. The next day, he called again to thank me, and to say that he wanted to help carry the torch for others.
That’s why we’re cultivating a generation of Acceptance Ambassadors — students on campuses who are already spreading the message and continuing these potentially life-saving conversations on their campuses, via social media, and on our website. We currently have thirteen ambassadors in five schools and expect that number to grow dramatically in the next year.
We’re also partnering with school counseling centers, athletic departments, and other committed faculty to ensure that once we leave, this crucial work continues. Our goal is to create an online community that bridges student Acceptance Ambassadors with their counseling centers and other students who may need support.
There are three key messages every college student needs to hear in order to be fully empowered around mental health:
• It’s okay to talk about mental health
• There’s no shame in seeking help
• There’s hope if you are diagnosed with a mental illness
By sharing these core messages consistently, colleges can create a culture of safety and an ongoing forum for self-expression around mental health conversations that empowers students to seek support — and support others — before it’s too late.
The I Am Acceptance Tour continues this fall as we prepare to visit 25 more campuses. To take a stand for mental health and discuss the possibility of an I Am Acceptance Tour stop on your campus, email us at [email protected] You can also visit the I Am Acceptance website for more information.
Hakeem Rahim is a nationally recognized mental health speaker, educator and advocate. In 2012 Hakeem began speaking openly about his 18-year journey with bipolar disorder. Since then Hakeem has spoken to over 50,000 middle school, high school, and college students, testified before the Congress and Senate, and was featured in print and television ads as part of New York City’s ThriveNYC Mental Health Awareness Campaign. He is the founder and president of I Am Acceptance, a 501 (c)3 non-profit committed to ending suicides on college campuses by promoting community wellness and acceptance.
For further guidance on the complicated transition to college, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has produced the film It’s Real: College Students and Mental Health, which is available for use as part of a school’s educational program to encourage help-seeking.
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