By Ibtasam Elmaliki

It’s a Thursday morning and people walk in with their coffee and bulky winter coats. The room in the Osborne Association on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd is a reflection of the Harlem community, an array of ages and races. They are all here with the same goal, to learn about mental health.

Achmat Akkad, the young and enthusiastic mental health first aid trainer, settles the room down addressing two things; first, the seminar does not teach anyone to diagnose or perform treatment, only how to seek help for others. Second, the Vegas rule, any personal mental health discussions don’t leave the room.

The community program was created in Australia by a nurse named Betty Kitchener. Kitchener realized that most people don’t know what to do in mental health emergencies. Michelle Obama took it from Australia and brought it to America. The course was also taken by the First Lady of New York. New York is the only city that offers the course completely free. The seminar is taught in a wide range of languages (Spanish, French, Arabic, Mandarin and Haitian/Creole) to reach a wide range of demographics in the city.

The seminars wake cultural conscious because they are taught by someone who matches with a specific community. Akkad, a young Black male, represents the Harlem community. Signing up for courses are made easy by simply going to HERE,  typing in your zip code and finding the nearest course taught near you, with an array of times offered. By the end of the course, there is a completion certificate and a mental health informational textbook.

The course provides a very intimate setting and people are encouraged to share their own experiences with mental health. Akkad portrays certain scenarios to spark discussion on what to do in a mental health crisis situation. Unlike traditional seminars, participants get to know each other, sharing ideas with one another and communicating on a personal level.

According to NYC Health, Central Harlem has more cases of poverty, unemployment and maintenance defects in housing than the rest of New York City. Poor housing and increased poverty are proven to contribute to poor mental health. So it’s no surprise that the number of psychiatric patients, as well as hospitalizations due to substance abuse, are concentrated in Central Harlem than NYC.

Lauren Aronson, a 23-year-old social work student is an Intern at Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Academy I Elementary. She strongly believes mental health courses are essential to communities like Harlem. “Classes like this are important here because there are a lot of traumas that people experience in these communities. I think it’s important to have a trauma-informed lens and know that this isn’t problem behavior, people aren’t just acting out because they’re bad people,” says Aronson. “There’s a lot that people experience in these communities not just now but historically. There are not just crazy people in the world, there are people who are actually going through stuff and it’s important to understand that and how to respond to that effect and hopefully eventually change the way things are.”

Akkad discusses how important it is for mental health aid resources to be accessible at a young age since most mental health disorders start at adolescence. “Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age of 14,” says Akkad. “It’s important to address issues at a young age so they don’t lead up to bigger mental health problems in the future.”

Three years ago suicide was the third cause of death in adolescence now it is the second cause of death. Yet stigmas of suicide are still alive, the reason why mental health education is needed more than ever. “Suicide isn’t talked about, nobody’s talking about it. People figure if it’s not talked about it will go away,” says Akkad.

Based on Akkad’s training he informs the class that the best way to help someone struggling with mental health is to address it. “If you see something, you have to address it,” Akkad says. “It’s important to just listen to them. Listen non judgmentally. Ask questions but don’t push it.” It’s also essential to know resources in your community that you can contact for help, NYC Well locates places in your area that specialize in mental health. NYC Well also gives citizens information such as coping mechanics, the important signs to spot in someone who may be suicidal as well as counselors to communicate with.

The last point Akkad left the class with is the importance of self-mental health. You can’t help someone else if your mental state isn’t in a good place. “It’s very easy to forget about taking care of yourself,” says Akkad. “It’s not selfish to keep care of your mental health as well, your mental health comes first.” When identifying a mental illness the 4 Ls has to be taken into account; live, love laugh and learn. If someone’s mental state is preventing them from experiencing these 4 Ls then they have to take measures to help their mental health. Properly identifying mental disorders is essential to gain a better understanding of the seriousness of mental health.

If you or someone you may know be struggling with Mental Health, “The following community mental health resources were assembled for the purpose of assisting students with seeking out mental health/psychological treatment, evaluation, and testing.

Please note that The Paper, CCNY and the AAC/SDS do not endorse
the services of these agencies and programs but provide this information for reference purposes and the convenience of students.