With tears rolling down his face, award-winning speaker Ross Szabo was staring back at himself the mirror, and realized something had to change.
“That was the first night I accepted having bipolar disorder.”
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In hindsight, this newfound awareness would become a defining moment in his life, and is ultimately what drove him to discover his purpose: making mental health an approachable topic.
Growing up with mental illness
Ross experienced more loss in the span of two years then some people do in a lifetime.
He was 13 when he started drinking alcohol. At 16, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In his senior year of high-school, he began having suicidal ideations.
“I thought I’d wake up one day and I’d want to live again,” he said.
“I thought that one day I’d wake up and everything would magically get better, but that didn’t come.”
Shortly after, he was hospitalized after attempting to take his own life. On the outside, Ross was successful student — president of his class, a varsity basketball player, but he felt as is he was leading a double life. He was living an internal experience no one knew about.
After graduation, he moved to go to college in Washington D.C., hoping to leave the past behind. Two months in, he had a relapse and moved back home.
Making the brave choice to choose self-love
By the time he returned to American University, four years later, his binge drinking was out of control. He woke up one night, after having been passed out for 22 hours following a night of incredibly heavy drinking, and that’s when he knew he had to make a decision.
“When you hate yourself, it doesn’t matter what your diagnosis or treatment are,” he said. “I didn’t care enough about myself to even want to try to work on anything.”
Szabo had to make choice between life or death. It was especially difficult for him to accept his reality and take the leap towards recovery, because he hated himself.
“There are few things more dangerous than a person who hates themselves,” he said.
Soon after, he began going to therapy and got treatment for his mental illness.
“I was honest for the first time, and I had to learn how to like myself.”
During his recovery journey, he understood that while he never chose to have bipolar disorder, he did have control over how he chose to cope with it.
Finding purpose in painful experiences
Eventually, Ross learned how to manage his disorder. He went on to graduate from American University and became a mental health advocate. But his own mental health is something he has to keep working on every day.
“Every day, I have to build my mental health, I have to check in with myself and make sure that I’m ok, that I can manage these situations,” he said.
Today, his mission in life has become to educate people about mental health, make it approachable, and to break the stigma that’s attached to it.
Szabo was the Director of Outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign for eight years. He’s also the co-author of Behind Happy Faces: Taking Charge Of Your Mental Health.
He’s created the Behind Happy Faces Curriculum, a mental health educational program that’s currently being used in schools across the U.S. to teach people of all ages and walks of life the skills they need to manage their mental health.
Through honesty, acceptance and a lot of hard work, he’s changing the way we talk about mental health, one story at a time.