His victory over mental illness sets him on a mission to ease the pain of others

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 Hakeem Rahim isn’t shy when it comes to talking about his mental illness.

"I went from Harvard University to being locked in a psychiatric ward," he said. "I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” he said.

It's a diagnosis that no longer defines him.

“I went through this, I’m not perfect, I still experience depression anxiety but if you can talk about it, you can get the help that you need. Recovery, wellness is possible,” he said.

Twenty years ago, a solution didn’t seem that simple. It all started a few months after graduating as his high school’s black valedictorian.

“1998, 17 years old, freshman at Harvard University... and first three weeks into campus I had an anxiety attack,” he said.

Manic episodes and deep bouts with depression followed. By his sophomore year, his family finally got him medical help.

“I started taking three types of medications and I gained 60 pounds,” he said.

But inside, Hakeem began feeling better. He found a balance between pills, therapy and exercise, all of which helped him get back on track.

“I still deal with depression, I still deal with anxiety but part of my growth and my work is knowing the signs,” he said.

But not everyone knows what to look for. One in 5 American adults experiences mental illness in a given year, yet more than 55 percent never receive treatment.

“Depression is one of the leading causes of disability in society we know that,” said Dr. Rafael Braga, an outpatient psychologist at Zucker Hillside Hospital. He has devoted his entire career to helping understand and eliminate the stigma of mental illness.

“That is a huge part of it, the other part of it for ...  the psychologist community and research community to try and do a better job in trying to find the culprit, the reasons why the symptoms exist and what to do to treat them better,” he said.

Rahim agrees, which is why he spends most of his time educating people across the country through his book of poems and his nonprofit, I Am Acceptance.

“What I do is go into schools, high schools, middle schools, colleges, I’ve spoken now to over 50,000 students and my message is three things," he said.

Those points are:

  • It’s okay to talk about what you’re going through.
  • There’s no shame in seeking help.
  • If you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, there’s hope.

A message he brought in front of Congress three separate times.

“I believe I went through this for a reason,” he said.