When Hakeem Rahim graduated as the first African American valedictorian from Uniondale HS in 1998, it was a sign the Hempstead, L.I. native was on the track to success.
What the promising teenager was not expecting, however, was that he would begin experiencing panic attacks during his freshman year at Harvard University and his struggles with bipolar disorder would escalate to a series of manic episodes that would put his trajectory on hold.
But by coming to terms with his struggles, he overcame those obstacles to graduate from two Ivy League institutions and now he shares his stories with a number of schools and institutions in Queens and North Shore Long Island-Jewish Hospital as a presenter with the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Let me put it like this: The work that I’m doing, that I’m really proud of, is working with mental health — really helping people be more aware,” he said. “Really my goal is to help create conversations around mental health and mental illness.”
When Rahim experienced his second manic episode in the spring of 2000, he was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In a confused medical state and on psychiatric medication, it was then he said he accepted that the anxiety and depression he had been experiencing for the past several years were manifestations of a larger problem. He took the challenge.
After returning to Harvard he finished his studies, graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and went on to continue his education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, earning his master’s in education degree in 2007.
From there he started his own consulting company, Live Breathe, LLC, focusing on educational consulting and mental health advocacy through speaking engagements, development workshops and training sessions.
He has worked with Hofstra, John Jay College and Mercy College.
It was not until years later, though, that Rahim began openly discussing his personal experiences with mental illness and in 2013 he got involved with the Queens and Nassau counties arm of NAMI.
Through sharing his own personal experiences, he hopes to break down the stigma associated with mental disorders.
“I had no knowledge of what mental illness really was,” he said. “I just knew there was something wrong with me.”
Rahim has given talks at a handful of Queens schools and institutions, such as Zucker Hillside Hospital and Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. The most important thing he has learned through his trials and tribulations is the power of sharing experiences.
“Ultimately it’s about stories,” he said. “The more we can talk and tell, the better off we’ll be. Ultimately we can save lives.”
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@