January 21, 2016

By Hakeem Rahim

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on Jan. 20 on Improving the Federal Response to Challenges in Mental Health Care in America. NAMI IOOV presenter Hakeem Rahim testified to the importance of passing mental health reform in the Senate (S 1945) and how it will improve the lives of millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

You can add your voice to Hakeem’s and thousands of other NAMI Advocates.

Watch the hearing and read Hakeem’s inspiring testimony below. Then, take action. Email and tweet your members of Congress. Tell them how important mental health reform is to you.

You have the power to advocate for change in the mental health system in this country. The time to act is now. 

Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, and Members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee:

Senators Cassidy and Murphy, first thank you for breaking the walls of silence around mental illness and taking these steps to improve the lives of millions impacted by mental illness. Let me first share my journey with you.

My journey with mental illness began in 1998 during my freshman year at Harvard University. Three weeks into my first semester, I was struck by my first terrifying panic attack. At the time, I could not find words to describe the deep terror I felt, but I knew something was wrong. My journey continued when I had my first manic episode.

In the spring of 2000, I had a second manic episode. My next two weeks were filled with sleepless nights. I showered less frequently and ate sporadically. I had visions of Jesus, heard cars talking and “spoke” foreign languages. This time my parents rushed me to a psychiatric hospital. I was hospitalized for two weeks in Queens, NY. My attending psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.

The last 18 years of my life have been defined by mental illness. Yet through the mental, emotional and financial support of my family, proper treatment, and persistence, I have been able to recover and achieve sustained wellness. There are millions of Americans who are thriving in the face of mental illness, teachers who rise each morning to face their anxiety and their classroom full of students, veterans with lingering invisible scars of PTSD who still provide for their families, mothers who have learned to manage their depression and tend to their months old

baby. Many are thriving, but many are not. In order to serve everyone living with mental illness, we must take steps to address stigma, access to medication and peer support.

In 2012, I began speaking openly about my struggle with mental illness. To date, I have spoken to thousands of individuals with mental illness, their family members, law enforcement officials, faith based communities, teachers and mental health professionals. Since 2013, I have been the NAMI Queens/Nassau, New York, Let’s Talk Mental Illness presenter. In this role, I have delivered over 300 presentations to more than 20,000 college, high school and middle school students.

After one of my middle school presentations in Far Rockaway, New Year, a petite young African American girl bounced up in front of me, reached for a hug and started to share. She went on to tell me that she was self harming. When I asked if she had told anyone in her school, she said no, her shoulders now hunched, I told her, “that’s okay, thank you for being brave and telling me.” I walked her over to her school counselor, the same school counselor a friend and family member advised her not to go to. Because her school saw the importance of openly addressing

stigma and bringing in my mental health awareness presentation, the young girl’s silence and reticence dissolved and she was able to get help. Awareness and education is central to speaking into the silence and shame that is currently surrounds mental illness. Many parts of this bill will, without a doubt, address key components that the lower barriers many face when seeking treatment.

For many medication is also an integral part of treatment. Medication has and continues to play a role in my daily life. I still take antidepressants and antipsychotics which are central to my recovery and overall wellness. Finding the right combination of meds was at times an emotionally and physically brutal task. Thankfully, by working with my doctors I have found the right combination.

The struggle to find the correct medication is arduous for many; at times finding the right medication can literally be the difference between life and death. Paul, a young man I know, went through 10 different diagnoses, Electroconvulsive Therapy and at least 50 combinations of medications. 20 years after his first manic episode, he is now a mental health advocate. Because he had access to affordable medications, he is now helping others work toward wellness. We must keep medications protected and accessible and affordable to people living with mental illness. Doctors and patients must have a choice in finding the right treatment as the wrong treatment can lead to a vicious cycles of hospital visits or substance abuse or exhausted caregivers and even death.

Medication is an essential choice for many, but medication and treatment alone cannot sustain wellness. Another key component of this bill is peer support. The power of being able to confide in and relate to others going through similar experiences cannot be understated. A peer support group I have interfaced with is the quintessential example of the power of the peer. On an email chain, a member of this particular support group mentioned he had relapsed into depression. Within an hour there were responses to his email. One member offered to pick him up to bring him to the weekly group. The members understood that the loving emotional strength of the group could shatter the weighted chains of depression. I am happy to say this group member recovered and is doing well. Having language and codifying what a peer specialist is and what peer support looks like is essential to standardizing an invaluable component of mental wellness.

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Murray and Members of the HELP Committee, I am aware I am testifying as a voice for people living with mental illness. My journey does not represent the full breadth of the experience living with mental illness, however my presence here does give a face to the millions of Americans struggling, striving and thriving with mental health conditions. Recovery from mental illness should be an option for all. This bill is a pronounced step in that direction. I deeply and respectfully urge this Committee to move forward on this strong bipartisan bill millions of people are depending on a transformation in how we address mental illness in America.

Hakeem Rahim, EdM, M.A. graduated from Harvard University and from Teacher’s College, Columbia University, start a consulting firm, and become NAMI Queens/Nassau’s Let’s Talk Mental Illness™ (LTMI) presenter, despite his struggles with bipolar disorder. Hakeem has also testified in front of Congress and featured in USA Today. Find out more about him at hakeemrahim.com

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