Author and award-winning mental health speaker Ross Szabo visited Middle Tennessee State University Wednesday and spoke to students about a topic all too relevant for young people: suicide prevention.
Szabo has many accomplishments, especially in the world of mental health. He was the Director of Outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign from 2002 to 2010, spoke to over one million young people, helped foster the first nationwide youth mental health speakers’ bureau in America and reached millions in media awareness.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 16 years old, Szabo shared how even though he had a happy childhood, even he could suffer from extreme depression and suicidal thoughts. During his senior year of high school, he attempted suicide, which led him to be hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. Throughout college, he still continued to struggle with his mental health and substance abuse, and he noted that he didn’t really make a change to his lifestyle until he was 22.
Along with sharing his own story with mental health, Szabo covered many stigmatized mental health topics. He discussed mental health vocabulary and how people do not know how to differentiate normal emotions — such as nervousness and sadness — from mental illnesses — such as an anxiety disorder and diagnosed depression. Additionally, he educated students about how there is good stress and bad stress, and oftentimes college students engage in a competition of stressors to see who is the most burnt out.
“The most important thing to take away is that mental health is like physical health, and that’s become a buzzword in our society today where we keep saying that, but we actually have to treat it that way,” Szabo said. “Mental health is not for people with problems. It’s not just for people with something wrong. It’s for all of us.”
This event allowed for Szabo to reach out to a much larger audience than originally anticipated, especially because many teachers required their students to attend this event.
Joey Sigler, a freshman aerospace student, was required to come to this event by his fraternity. He doesn’t regret his decision to attend this event though. Personally, he has heard speakers like this for many years, as he’s spent six years in the Marine Corps, but he does believe that the message is always good to reiterate. “I hope people learn that talking to somebody is very important. I’ve gone through situations myself where I’ve had to talk to people or people talk to me. It helps more than anyone can really realize.”
However, students that came to this event because of their interest in mental health also learned a lot from Szabo.
Ryland Housewright, a social work major who uses they/them pronouns, has always had a passion for mental health and helping those in need. In fact, their interest in this topic is what led them to become a social work major.
“I feel like I learned more about how coping mechanisms work and evolve,” Housewright said. “I hope that others learn that it’s not a fault if you have a mental illness and that mental health is something that should be focused on just as much as physical health.”
Despite how his career focuses around mental health, Szabo said that he did not want to be seen as a “poster child” for how mental health can be fixed. He said that he still struggles with his bipolar disorder and depression. That’s not something that goes away, but he hopes that by sharing his story he can motivate others to get the care that they need.
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