Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 16, and hospitalized at age 17 for attempting suicide, Ross Szabo resolved to help others understand their own mental illness, that there is no shame in it and that there are ways to get help, heal and get better, by sharing his own experience. Ross advocates mental health by talking to hundreds of thousands of young people across the U.S. He is the Director of Youth Outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign, an organization that was launched at the White House Conference on Mental Health in 1999. They also partnered with MTV in 2001, introducing the first of its’ kind mental health public service campaign for young people. In 2007, Ross and his co-author, Melanie Hall, wrote a book, ‘Behind Happy Faces – Taking Charge of Your Life’.
Like most of the bands we interview, you also tour all over the country. But you’re not putting on a rock show, you talk to young people about mental health. You’re the only person in the U.S. to speak to over half a million young people about these issues in the past 5 years! Do you consider yourself a social innovator?
Thank you. I wouldn’t say social innovator is the best term, but I do feel I’ve tried to do something a little different. Obviously public speakers have been around for a long time. There have also been a lot of amazing advocates talking about mental illness long before me. What I always wanted to do was offer something that wasn’t in place when I was in middle school, high school and college. I felt that when people talked about emotion to us they only focused on mental illness and not mental health, but mental health is something everyone should have. We always had presentations about not drinking, not doing drugs, not drinking and driving and not having sex, but no one came in and did presentations letting young people know it’s ok to talk about how you feel. I have been really fortunate in finding ways to help bring that innovation to schools around the country and I think it will only expand from here. I think one of the best ways to be an innovator is to take existing things that work and expand them in new ways.
What do you think comes to most people’s minds when they hear the words ‘mental illness’?
Unfortunately I think when people hear the words mental illness or even mental HEALTH they immediately think of the worst case scenario. They conjure up images of horror movies, celebrity breakdowns, extreme cases of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or whatever else. The largest problem with that is the poster child for mental health issues is anyone who is dysfunctional, which doesn’t offer a positive example. If all you knew about mental health issues were the most negative pieces then why would you seek help? There wouldn’t be much hope. The truth is a large majority of mental illness is mild to moderate and extremely treatable, but most people don’t think that way because of all of these stereotypes.
What is your dream or vision of the changes you’d like to see?
My organization is developing school programs for middle schools and high schools and we’re also trying to work with colleges in any way we can. The biggest change I would like to see is a focus on helping people better understand where they are on the spectrum of mental health and what they can do about it. I think it would really benefit people to know that there is a range of mental health in our lives. On the low end of the spectrum is stress, pressure, lack of sleep etc. A little bit past that people may deal with death, divorce, break ups, abuse etc. A little past that people deal with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction and a little past that are mental disorders. Every person in the country falls in somewhere on this spectrum their whole lives and educating people on this as well as letting them know what they could do about it would greatly lessen stigma and help people feel more comfortable with whatever they’re dealing with.
At age 16, you were diagnosed with bipolar disorder. How did you feel receiving the diagnosis?
When I was diagnosed I was in extreme denial and really tried to pretend it wouldn’t affect me. I watched my oldest brother deal with bipolar disorder and still lead a very productive life, so I thought I would be fine. Unfortunately, my denial was really damaging, because it led to self-hatred, anger, alcohol abuse and other issues that complicated any chance of dealing with bipolar disorder in a positive way. It took a long time for me to deal with that denial.
What do depression and mania look like for you?
Depression for me varies depending on the severity of the episode. Mild depression results in me not wanting to get out of bed, sleeping a lot, not wanting to do the things I enjoy and seeking isolation. Severe depression is all of those feelings magnified one million times and then on top of it extreme anger and thoughts of death, suicide and people close to me dying. I think the hardest thing about depression at this point is knowing everything I can about it, but still not being able to prevent it or just snap out of it. It’s like this cloud in your head that just won’t go away.
Mania has different levels for me as well. I haven’t really had a manic high for a long time. I tend to have more depressive episodes than mania. When I was in extreme mania I had mind racing thoughts constantly and couldn’t sleep at night. I felt invincible. I viewed everything I did differently. I thought I could run faster, jump higher, drive better and everything was enhanced. I also had severe hallucinations and delusions. The hallucinations never made mania fun for me. I know some people like feeling manic, but when I came down I thought about the dangerous things I did and didn’t really crave the feeling again.
How did you learn to manage your bipolar disorder? What works for you? What doesn’t?
It took a long time for me to find how to manage bipolar disorder. I dealt with constant mood swings, extreme alcohol abuse and hallucinations for 6-7 years before I was able to begin managing it. The first step I took was to learn to care about myself. One of the biggest byproducts of bipolar disorder for me was self-hatred. People constantly told me to find the right treatment, medication etc., but because I hated myself getting better didn’t really matter to me. Once I learned to like myself then I had to deal with the disorder.
To find a way to begin dealing with the disorder I put myself on a set schedule. I woke up at the same time every day and went to bed at the same time every night. I stopped drinking alcohol, stopped smoking cigarettes, started eating healthy, started working out, stopped drinking caffeine and really tried to stick to a system. In that system I was able to identify my warning signs and focus on triggers or other issues that came from bipolar disorder. When I was doing all of those other things I didn’t really have a starting point and this system gave me a starting point.
However systems can eventually become dangerous, because you may end up cutting yourself off from any growth. So once I learned as much about myself as I could I had to start branching out. I learned if I didn’t put myself in different situations then I could never grow. Now I continue to always work hard to identify my triggers, warning signs and everything else. I think one of the biggest things I learned along the way was that you always hear people say, “I’m bipolar,” but I’m not bipolar, I’m Ross and I have bipolar disorder. In the times of my life when I said “I’m bipolar” I was letting the disorder define my life. I learned that it doesn’t have to define my life and it’s important to do the work to find out who you are and what the disorder is.
How has your life changed since you started presenting and choosing to make a difference?
I’ve been beyond fortunate to see every major city in the country, to meet hundreds of thousands of people, and most importantly to have honest conversations with different people all over the U.S. I’ve had the opportunity to see the similarities in people who think no one could possibly be like them. I’ve also been able to see the amazing work local groups, organizations, schools and other people to help one another. All of these experiences have helped me grow tremendously as an individual and ground me with understanding of how vital these issues really are. I’m truly thankful for every experience I’ve had.
You’ve recently written a book, Behind Happy Faces: What Young Adults Need To Know About Mental Health. What do you hope your book will accomplish or how do you hope it will affect others?
The main reason I wrote this book was because I kept hearing the same questions and concerns from hundreds of thousands of young people each day and they didn’t have one place to go for their answers. I found that a lot of people were in the same situation of worrying about themselves, a friend, a boyfriend/girlfriend or family member and didn’t know what to do. The book covers all of these common situations. The chapters deal with what it’s like to be young today, the main reasons people don’t seek help, differences in race, gender, socio-economic status and sexual orientation as well what you can do for yourself, your family, your friends and in relationships. I use my personal story and about 25 other people’s stories throughout the book to have someone to connect to. The book has been made into curriculum at schools and colleges around the country, which is great.
All seriousness aside, what do you do for fun?
I actually do ultimate fighting training on the beach near my house whenever I’m home. I don’t have any plans of getting in the octagon, but it’s a lot of fun. I like to run, play paddle tennis, watch movies, spend time with friends, and I absolutely love to read. I read all of the time on planes and focus most of my reading on books about history, anthropology, sociology, politics and psychology. I’ll read fiction once in a while so not everything is serious.
Any words to live by?
Embrace Your Freakishness!
Connect the dots and question everything in your world!
Don’t let your life be defined by one setback or one defeat! (especially when dealing with mental health issues and recovery)
Don’t be a victim of your past, Be a survivor of your future.