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Good luck, graduates. As you enter college, dream big, have fun, and don't be afraid to talk about mental illness

Good luck, graduates. As you enter college, dream big, have fun, and don't be afraid to talk about mental illness
Quince Orchard High School graduating senior Hakeem Howard spoke about his mental breakdown and hospitalization in a powerful commencement speech last week. He's flanked by his mother, Courtney Howard, and his father, Marcus Waugh. (Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

Hakeem Howard, a senior at Quince Orchard High School in suburban Maryland, was in his first-period class one morning listening to announcements when he heard that the school was looking for graduation speakers and valedictorians.

Grade-wise, he told me, he definitely wasn’t a valedictorian. But, he said: “I knew I had something great to talk about. I felt like I could take something that happened to me and talk about it in a way that would touch others.”

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Administrators agreed, and on graduation day, Hakeem took a seat onstage with school officials, valedictorians and other notables.

The ceremony took place in Washington, D.C., at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, a magnificent venue that was big enough to accommodate 450 graduating seniors and nearly 2,500 of their loved ones.

As is the tradition at these things, the school orchestra played beautifully, the choir hit all its notes, and the speeches were suitably upbeat and wry.

Commencement speaker Ken Niumatalolo, head football coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, brought down the house when he confessed that, 20 years earlier, he’d been fired from the Naval Academy, the very place that eventually hired him back, and where he has since become the winningest coach in Navy football history. (Message: Never give up.)

I was there to cheer on my granddaughter, Kenna Cramer, who is related to me in the roundabout manner of so many modern American families; she is the daughter of my step-daughter, whose father is my ex-husband. Kenna told me later she expected Hakeem to deliver a lighthearted, funny speech.

But as he walked up to the dais, it was obvious he was collecting himself emotionally.

“Exactly one year ago today,” Hakeem said, “I was admitted to a mental health facility, broken and lost. The drive I had inside was gone….I really should have talked to someone, asked for help. However, I didn’t, and I crumbled tremendously.”

During his hospital stay, he said, he had a memorable visit from the father of one of his best friends. His friend’s dad told him that climbing Mt. Everest is often used as a metaphor for success. “Climb to the top of the mountain and you’ve reached your goal!” he told Hakeem.

But no one, the friend’s dad added, ever climbs Everest alone. There is always a support team. That was the metaphor Hakeem found more relevant. That was the lesson that Hakeem wanted to impart to his friends: In times of trouble, don’t go it alone.

Tears spilled down Hakeem’s cheeks and his voice broke as he spoke of the dark episode during his junior year that led to a stay in a psychiatric unit. He had trouble talking, but as Hakeem faltered, the audience stepped up, applauding him to signal their support.

There was already a tremendous amount of emotion in this crowd, and it wasn’t just the bittersweetness of graduation. These kids had suffered the loss of two classmates — one from cancer, another from a sudden cardiac arrest — and had watched in tears as the two sets of grieving parents were given their children’s honorary diplomas.

“High school is more than a place where you sit down and learn from the books,” Hakeem said. “Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health disorders in the United States among young adults and teens.”

Wow, I thought. Who talks at their high school graduation about feeling suicidal and the importance of seeking help? Most high school graduation speeches are full of platitudes that are long forgotten by the time you sit down to the celebratory meal.

After Hakeem got out of the hospital, he told me, he and his mom made a pact: “When I am upset, I try to gather myself and my words, and we sit down and we talk. I try to let out what I am feeling. She just listens. It’s the best thing she could do.”

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Just listen? Not a bad idea.

Students of Quince Orchard High School, a campus in suburban Maryland, graduate last week at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Students of Quince Orchard High School, a campus in suburban Maryland, graduate last week at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. (Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

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Almost everyone I know knows someone whose kid had a terrible time adjusting during freshman year of college, and ended up having an emotional crash or moving home, or both.

The anecdotal evidence is borne out by surveys. For the first time in the 51-year history of the Freshman Survey, an annual study of first-year college students by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, a record low number of students (47%) said they considered their mental health to be “above average in relation to their peers.” Nearly 12%, a record high, reported feeling depressed in the past year, and more than a third of students reported feeling anxious “frequently.”

I guess the good news is that nearly 14% said there was a “very good chance” they’d seek therapy in college.

Hakeem told me later that he’d spent three days in the hospital. He’d struggled with depression his whole life, he said. Last year, it hit him especially hard.

As he was spiraling into anxiety and sadness, he spent less time at home and refused to talk to his mother, who is separated from his father. His grades dropped; he was drinking and smoking, and abusing prescription drugs like Xanax and Klonopin. For months, he said, he’d been feeling suicidal.

Finally, he had an ugly fight with his mother.

“I was acting irrational,” he said. “She said: ‘You are not my son. We need to get you to a hospital.’”

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Three quarters of the way through his speech, Hakeem turned the page in his binder on the dais and discovered the second page was missing. Because he had not memorized his words, he paused, said, “That’s all I got,” and sat down.

The audience erupted in cheers for him. It didn’t really matter that his speech had ended abruptly. He had already made his point about seeking help, had already demonstrated an uncommon courage as he revealed his most personal struggle.

The next day, though, Hakeem donned his cap and gown and went back to school in Gaithersburg to deliver his entire speech in a studio on campus. The video was posted on the school’s website. It was a nice gesture by school administrators, who felt bad about the snafu, which was theirs.

I watched it online, and it didn’t hit me with the same force. Hakeem was calm and collected, and his speech was fine.

But nothing will ever compare to the raw emotion, brutal honesty and grace he displayed in those moments onstage.

That was a speech, I guarantee you, that none of his classmates will ever forget.

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