WEST MILTON — During a community mental health awareness program, mental health advocate Ross Szabo compared mental health to physical health, pointing out that the brain is a part of the body.
“The goal is to normalize mental health for everybody, instead of isolating mental illness,” he said. “When we talk about physical health, we think about how we can build our bodies, how we can become stronger, how can we become healthier. I really want you to think of mental health in the same vein.”
Szabo, a speaker, author and developer of a mental health education curriculum, hopes to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and to encourage people to take care of their whole selves.
“If we want to build our physical health, we exercise, we eat right, we take care of ourselves. With mental health, we have to think about how we cope, how we communicate and how we work on building our minds,” he said. “The brain is a part of the body. Just like any other part of the body, when something’s wrong it’s important to get help.”
The Milton-Union school district, in partnership with the Tri-County Board of Mental Health and local non-profit Free the Mind/Anchor the Soul, brought Szabo to the community on Monday, March 26. The hour-long event was held at the elementary school. Earlier in the day, Szabo also spoke to middle and high school students.
He broke mental health challenges into five different categories: everyday challenges, environmental factors like the way a person was raised, significant events like a death or break-up, mental health disorders like anxiety, and developmental disabilities like autism.
“It’s really important to give people separation. So that somebody who is experiencing an everyday challenge understand, ‘OK, this is hard, but I may not need the same kind of help as somebody with a mental health disorder,’” he said.
He also described mental health as a spectrum from not needing any help to have a balanced life, to needing constant help to balance. He added that everyone has been everywhere on that spectrum at some point in their lives.
“There are people out there who don’t have a lot of challenges, who don’t have to think about their mental health much — they’re just able to balance. These are the people I hate most in life,” he joked, before adding, “Needing constant assistance could be a drug or alcohol treatment program, but, and all of the adults in the room have been in this situation, where a friend or family member goes through something terrible and you just don’t leave them alone. You stay at their house, you make sure they eat.
“Being unable to balance could be someone who’s suicidal, but it could also just be somebody who went through a really difficult event… We’re on this mental health spectrum our whole lives.”
Szabo also asked attendees to reframe the way they think about stress. Instead of always viewing it as a negative, he encouraged others to think of it as a motivating factor.
Szabo has been speaking to others about mental when he made a tough decision to stand up in front of his high school classmates at the age of 17 and share his personal experiences with bipolar disorder. After struggling for years to hide his feelings and using alcohol to cope, Szabo attempted to take his own life and was hospitalized.
He went on to earn a degree in psychology, serve in the U.S. Peace Corps, author a book and start a company to provide mental health education.
“I’ve been speaking about mental health for a long time. Back in the day, a lot of people in the community would be afraid to come out. I’d always speak to parents and they’d want to sit in the very back and not be seen, leave as quickly as they could. Because the assumption was, if we’re talking about mental health, then something must be wrong,” he recalled. “I’m so glad that stigma has been going down over the years.”
The district brought Szabo to talk to students and the community after searching for the right speaker for more than a year. Superintendent Brad Ritchey said the schools wanted to find a speaker whose message would fit in with the goals of Rachel’s Challenge, a program aimed at promoting compassion and preventing school violence, bullying and teen suicide.
“It just seems like we have so many — even young kids — that are dealing with all kinds of difficulties. So if we were going to prioritize issues, this is right at the top of the list,” Ritchey said.
Szabo is the author of “Behind Happy Faces; Taking Charge of Your Mental Health,” and has developed a mental health curriculum of the same name which is used at high schools and universities like Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Reach Cecilia Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.