“It’s okay to talk, there is no shame, and there is hope.” These were three messages regarding mental illness that Hakeem Rahim, mental health speaker and trainer, asked the Andover community to repeat out loud on Wednesday during All-School Meeting (ASM). Rahim’s speech focused on different aspects of mental health challenges and wellness.
Before Rahim took the stage, Head of School John Palfrey P’21 and Linda Carter Griffith, Assistant Head of School for Equity, Inclusion, and Wellness, both took time to acknowledge that Wednesday was the one year anniversary of Daniel Nakajima ’18’s death by suicide.
“This is the place where we gathered last year, where one of our own members of our community, Dan Nakajima, had suddenly and tragically died by suicide. On a day like today, many of us will be remembering Dan. I know many of you are still making your connections, building your support system. I encourage you to continue spending time doing that,” said Griffith.
After Palfrey and Griffith’s introductions, Rahim began with a spoken-word poem.
“The first piece about being okay to talk [about mental illness] is education of what mental illness is and what it looks like,” said Rahim in his speech.
Rahim focused on challenges that come with mental illnesses such as depression, emphasizing that anxiety and loneliness are not odd symptoms for adolescents. Rahim himself has dealt with bipolar disorder.
“Mental illness does impact your body, physiology, your mind, your thoughts, and behaviors. You might not want to do things that you love to do,” said Rahim.
“We feel like we’re alone. Sometimes, we feel like ‘I am the only one going through this.’ But guess what, look around you. Somebody else is feeling that way too. Did you know that one out of five teens actually experience some form of mental challenges any given year? You are not alone,” Rahim continued.
According to Tulio Marchetti ’21, Rahim’s message inspired and resonated with him.
Marchetti said, “I thought [Rahim’s message] spoke to a lot of people with mental challenges. I think he emphasized that you are not alone, and that there is always on option for help. And the three steps that he mentioned resonated with members of the community. Overall, he knew how to speak very well, and because of that, it was very inspirational to me. I thought his life story was very special, and I respect him for how he coped with his bipolar disorder.”
Rahim also spoke about both shame and hope, which were key components of his message to the audience. He explained how prejudice silences the voices and brings shame to many others, as well as the importance of motivation in life.
“Shame can come from the labels that you put on yourself or come with you. You don’t have to be a person of color to feel shame. Somebody might have a lot of money and feel they don’t deserve it, there is shame there… Identities with expectations can lead to mental challenges. The part of today is that there is no shame to what you do,” said Rahim.
Rahim continued, “One of my favorite mottos in life is, ‘Where I am is not who I am.’ Sometimes when you are depressed or anxious, you can feel like this is who I am. You can feel like you can’t get out of bed, the world is closing in on [you]. Anchoring and having something to know to tell yourself is so powerful.”
Rahim’s talk also included a personal story of his experiences with bipolar disorder, including his recovery. While diagnosed in his first year at Harvard University, Rahim managed to return and successfully graduate after severe anxiety and depression.
Dr. Susan Esty, Director of Wellness Education, spoke to why Andover decided to invite a speaker who would focus on wellness.
Esty said, “We were interested in prioritizing wellness on campus anyway. That is why [Empathy, Balance and Inclusion (EBI)] exists, [and] that is why the school has prioritized wellness. Having a wellness speaker made sense.”
Esty continued, “We live in a very competitive environment where we always want to do more and faster, which is not good for your mental health. Through EBI, we have actually been trying to give that message, and yet it is 45 minutes a week, and how much do we actually [slow down]? I think that it is a message that needs to be repeated in lots of venues by lots of different people to sink in.”
Rahim concluded his talk with another spoken word poem.
“[Poetry] has been a tool for self-expression [for me]. The poem that I recited at the end… I wrote it one day when I was depressed and anxious. My boss at the time called me and asked me, ‘Where are you?’ It was 10 o’clock. I told him I had the flu, but in fact, I was transitioning off some meds and I was struggling with that transition,” said Rahim.
Rahim continued, “So what I did was I felt that I would be stigmatised, that I believed that if he knew that I had a mental health challenge, I would be judged. So that’s why I lied and told him I had the flu. And it is not those days that emerged out of me reckoning with my condition… I like that we do not have to choose between our wellness and creativity, and creativity should be a fuel for wellness.”