Hufsa Ahmad spread awareness when leading the Staying Socially Distant Without Harming Your Mental Health discussion to California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) students and staff on Oct. 14. Ahmad’s openness and humor encouraged many participants to engage with her throughout the talk despite the seriousness of some topics.
Ahmad started by detailing her journey to where she is now: a 32-year-old living with mental illness and a celebrated advocate for breaking the stigma surrounding mental health issues. She has a master’s in social work from California State University, Long Beach and is currently the program director for the Orange County Multi-Ethnic Collaborative of Community Agencies, where she facilitates programs to prevent stigma and suicide. Ahmad has also been invited to lead several TED talks about mental health and has her own website where she advocates for more awareness.
Her journey up to this point was by no means smooth. Ahmad discussed bouts of bullying, depression and attempted suicide during her elementary and high school years.
“I’ve kept in touch with my teachers, and of course my mom about this, and she said that she knew I was depressed, my teachers knew I was depressed,” she said. “But none of them did anything because they didn’t know what to do.”
This pervasive ignorance around mental health issues is part of the reason Ahmad is an advocate today. “That is, to me, such a crime that ignorance leads to inaction. But essentially, because you don’t know what to do you do nothing. And that’s why we need mental health education.”
Throughout her journey of living with mental illness Ahmad has been inspired by peers to keep going no matter how hard her struggles became.
Ahmad attended Harvey Mudd College to study chemistry but in college she had a downward spiral that included alcohol abuse and delusions. Late one night on campus, she said she “heard something saying to me, ‘climb from one balcony to the other balcony.’”
After that she had to meet with her resident advisor Jason and she described her terrifying experience to him. “He looked me in the eye and he said, ‘Hufsa you are destined for greatness.’”
These seemingly simple words of encouragement and belief in her have helped her stay strong through tough times. “I heard Jason saying ‘you are destined for greatness’ and that saved my life.”
Ahmad went on to talk about how mental health is affected by the pandemic. “Fifty-two percent of people feel like they are going to be worse off due to the pandemic,” she said.
Ahmad suggested ways to manage the balancing act of work or school while maintaining a healthy mind. Her advice was to connect with others, get enough sleep consistently and to seek counseling if needed. Ahmad said Zoom fatigue can affect people and told students to limit their time on Zoom and turn off their camera when possible, contradicting what a lot of teachers prefer. This is because, “It feels like you’re performing if your camera’s on because it makes you feel like people are always watching you,” she said. “So you have to look alert, and that in itself is draining.”
Ahmad also discussed the power of association and delusions and how those issues have been even more prevalent during the pandemic. She used the drop in Corona beer sales as an example. Because people are connecting the name of the beer to the coronavirus, they are linking the product to the pandemic although the two don’t directly affect one another. Falsely labeling anything or anyone can negatively affect a person’s attitude towards that item or individual.
This power of association is what leads to stigmas about mental health according to Ahmad. For example, she said to avoid saying things like, “He’s a schizophrenic,” because it then labels that person and associates them with all the misconceptions surrounding the illness.
This inspired her catchphrase and hashtag STIGMA SMASH. According to Ahmad’s website, “The idea of ‘stigma smashing’ was related to channeling the Incredible Hulk’s anger into combating stigma. Instead of yelling ‘Hulk Smash’ however, we yell ‘STIGMA SMASH!’”
Throughout her talk Ahmad emphasized the importance of counseling and getting help when needed and also inspiring friends in need to get help.
“You don’t have to be someone’s best friend to have an impact on their lives. Even with strangers you can have an impact,” she said. “Your words and your actions go a long way.”
This was the second talk in the Social Justice Dialogue Series put on by CSUMB’s Center for Learning and Assessment and Otter Cross Cultural Center. The next part of the series, Post Election 2020 Cultivating Our Pathway for the Future, will broadcast on Nov. 12.
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