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How I'm Honoring Muhammad Ali as a Mental Health Advocate

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This year we had to say our final goodbye to the GOAT, the Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali. Not only was he a great boxer, but he was an incredible and articulate activist. He stood up for the rights of black people, his Islamic faith and for anything he felt was right. He was never afraid to be outspoken. The death of this legend hit me hard, and I’ll tell you why.

I am from New Orleans. However, for 12 years of my life I was raised in Louisville, Kentucky. The “ville,” as I call it, is my mom’s hometown and also the home of the GOAT. Living in the “ville” for a good part of my life exposed me to great stories and triumphs of Ali. I never watched boxing much, but the stories my mom told me about Ali caught my attention at an early age. I remember the first story she told me at 8 years old. The story of how he won an Olympic gold medal and threw it into the Ohio River. Of course, my young mind inquired to know, “Why would he do such a thing?”

My mother explained when he came back to Louisville as a Olympic champion and still couldn’t eat in the same restaurant as white people, he realized the medal meant nothing. He was still not considered an equal. So he threw it in the river. My mom also told me stories about how he went to Central High School and how she wished she could have attended but my grandparents wouldn’t let her. She also told me about his early days as a boxer when he was still called Cassius Clay.

I grew up always being fascinated with the champ. His courage, strength, perseverance and “I’m the greatest” attitude. I was quite the opposite of him growing up. I was quiet, shy and reserved. I didn’t like for my voice to be heard. In the fifth grade, I actually got to breathe in the same air as him. There was a big celebration ceremony in downtown Louisville. Certain kids were allowed to attend and my teacher chose me to go because of my good behavior. I remember chanting his name along with the other kids and how after the event was over I got to reach out and touch him, a moment I’ve never forgotten.

When I turned 14, I decided I wanted to attend Central High School, just like the champ. I remember seeing his championship display every morning and walking the same halls he once walked. I always felt proud. I moved back to New Orleans after high school. However, even in my late 20s, I still have so much love and admiration for the champ.

The day Ali died, I happened to be in Louisville visiting for a week. My high school put together a memorial walk from our school to the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville. Of course, I was in attendance. I remember one of my former classmates saying, “The death of the Greatest has made Central graduates’ loads a lot heavier. We have to carry on his legacy. We have to make a difference.”

The words were so true. However, I was thinking to myself “How the hell can I do that? That’s a lot to live up to.” I’m no heavy weight boxing champion. I am outspoken nowadays but not on Ali’s level of outspoken. I’m a mental health activist and a self-help  author. I talk about depression and suicide.

How can I live up to the Greatest when I’m the exact opposite of who he was? We never had anything in common except going to the same high school. All of that went through my mind during the week of Ali’s final goodbye. On my final day in Louisville (which happened to be the day of his funeral), someone posted a clip of the champ that dated all the way back to 1981. It was a story I’d never known about him.

The clip was of Ali saving a man who was about to jump off a ledge and take his life. Many already tried to talk the man down, but they had given up hope. Ali happened to be in the area and volunteered to talk him down. The man listened to the champ, and he lived. As I watched the clip, I was immediately moved to tears. All these years and I never knew the champ and I actually had something in common. We both had the strength and compassion to help another going through mental illness.

I have only been a mental health activist for about a year and a half. I’ve talked to people who have felt on edge and suicidal. I know what it feels like to want to die and be severely depressed. When I recovered, I decided I wanted to help others recover too. Seeing this extreme act of kindness from the champ made me realize something important.

I will never be just like him, but as a Central High School graduate and lifelong admirer, I can still carry on his legacy in some way. Ali saved a man from taking his life. I promise to keep that part of him alive. I will continue to care about the mental health of others. I will continue to be outspoken about why mental health is important and suicide is real. I will always love Ali. I also thank him for showing me that in some way I can still be the greatest too.

Video via Muhammad Ali Fan Youtube channel.
Image via Muhammad Ali Verified Facebook page.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Originally published: August 18, 2016
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