Service Stories: Let’s talk about mental health

Friday, Feb 2, 2018
by Isabel Ruehl '20

To kick off the Mental Health Initiative’s Mental Health Week (February 19 – 23), members of MHI and Breakout Princeton have organized a performance starring acclaimed slam poet Neil Hilborn, whose work deals largely with mental health. The event will take place on Tuesday, February 13, at 6 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium.

Neil was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as a child, then with bipolar disorder while he was a student at Macalaster College in Minnesota. Writing became a way for him not only to manage his disorders, but also to explore them—and as Neil immersed himself in the world of poetry, joining Macalaster’s slam poetry team and earning a degree in creative writing, he met with great success. In fact, his team won the College National Poetry Slam in 2011, and his poem entitled “OCD” went viral on YouTube in 2013. It boasts nearly 14 million views to date.

Now, Neil travels and performs for his career, often visiting college campuses. Princeton’s Nourhan Ibrahim ’20 reported being “a fan of his for years now” and, alongside MHI co-chair Nadeem Demian ’19 and member Sirad Hassan ’20, has been organizing his upcoming event since November.

“This event is engaging in service by providing space for open discussions. Our hope is that attendees will continue this important dialogue long past the event.” - Nourhan Ibrahim ’20

Nourhan believes that poetry can be a particularly powerful medium for messages pertaining to mental health.

“By channeling his own personal experiences into his work, Neil’s poetry is able to convey empathy and strong emotion that we think will definitely resonate with many students,” she said.

Nourhan’s involvement with this project has its roots in her experience as a member and co-leader of Breakout Princeton trips related to healthcare. Last spring, she and Sirad led a trip to Boston called “Breaking Down Barriers: An Intersectional Approach to Mental Healthcare Access,” during which they met with different community leaders to learn more about where the mental healthcare system needs attention.

Back on campus, Nourhan and Sirad wanted to engage the campus community in dialogue about mental health in order to destigmatize it.

Neil Hilborn Event Flyer“We hope that everyone who attends this event will walk away at least thinking about mental health, and that it allows students to connect with Neil’s work, and with each other, in different ways,” Nourhan said.

A diverse group of people have been involved in planning Neil’s upcoming performance. Although MHI and Breakout Princeton are officially hosting the event, the Undergraduate Student Government and Psychology Department are also helping to coordinate funding, and Princeton’s Songline Poetry Group will be opening the event.

The goal, ultimately, is to inspire conversation and destigmatize mental health. With this in mind, MHI hopes that as many people as possible—both on- and off-campus—attend the event. Tickets are free and available at Frist Campus Center, as detailed in the public Facebook event.

“By connecting with the arts through performance poetry, and allowing people to participate in a Q&A with the performer, this event is engaging in service by providing space for open discussions,” Nourhan said. “Our hope is that attendees will continue this important dialogue long past the event.”

If you are interested in joining MHI email Sirad ( or Nadeem (; and if you are interested in learning more about Breakout Princeton, reach out to Nourhan (