Picture Courtesy of Ross Szabo
When Ross Szabo, wellness director at the Geffen Academy at UCLA and CEO of the Human Power Project, a curriculum designed for students focusing on mental health, tried to end his life at age 17, he didn’t know it would be a turning point toward a career helping students and adults find their own mental wellness. Actually, that turning point came at 22 after years of struggling with his own mental health dropping in and out of colleges.
Szabo eventually graduated from American University and after learning to manage his bipolar disorder effectively began speaking to others about mental health. He authored the book Behind Happy Faces highlighting his own stories with tips to help others achieve lasting mental health. The book became an evidence-based, award-winning nation-wide curriculum for college, high school, and middle school students.
His program highlights the following: a definition of mental health, a new vocabulary for mental health, how to build effective coping skills, descriptions of the most common mental health disorders, the importance of sympathy, empathy and compassion, the difference between good stress and bad stress and how to use good stress effectively, brain development and risk taking, upstander intervention, and how to help a friend.
“We teach that good mental health is the same as taking care of physical health like the flu or a broken leg,” he said.
He earned the Didi Hirsch Removing the Stigma Leadership Award, and his work was entered into the Congressional Record by Congressman Patrick Kennedy. Recently, I learned on Instagram, that he was featured on Dr. Phil’s show about his educational program on mental health.
“I created the Human Power Project to help people move past mental health awareness and start teaching people skills about their mental health,” Szabo said. Some of the Human Power Project’s studies showed that students could now take care of their own mental health and manage their lives better.
The program gets results too. “Students report that they have more mental health literacy, understand how to frame mental health, and look at it differently than before,” he said.
Szabo said the concept of putting mental health on a spectrum of people who have severe disorders versus everyone else is dangerous.
“The dangerous thing that this promotes is everyone with a diagnosis needs help, and people without one doesn’t,” he said.
Everyone has triggers and stress. For some, it may mean treatment and therapy. For others, it might mean listening to soothing music, meditating, talking to a friend, going for a walk, or anything to balance your mental health. For Szabo, that means lots of meditating and he recently started incorporating Breathwork into his wellness practices.
In the age of school shootings where students know they are happening by picking up their phone and with social media so pervasive and the pressures to get good grades and get into a top college, students are being pushed to the brinks of bad mental health.
Szabo is impressed with this generation’s openness about the topic of mental health.
“When I got out of the psych ward in 1996 and first began speaking about mental health, there was nervous laughter in the classroom. This generation is more open than the one before it.”
Like many mental health advocates, including myself, Szabo took a break from mental health. He joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Argentina and Botswana. In Botswana, he worked at a center for people with disabilities.
Szabo stated that the biggest most common window for people to seek help is ten years. It is important to understand mental health and how it impacts your life.
To reach Ross, click on www.rossszabo.com, or check out the Human Power Project.