October 19, 2007

Speaker Offers Advice On Mental Health Issues

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Walking around Cornell’s campus, it is easy to see hundreds of smiling students who seem perfectly happy. According to Ross Szabo of Campuspeak Inc., however, there may be a lot more going on behind their sunny dispositions.
Szabo’s presentation, “What Happy Faces Are Hiding: Talking About Depression” focused on removing the common stigmas associated with mental health problems and the importance of communication as treatment.
“80 to 90 percent of people who seek help (on mental health problems) can go back to normal life,” Szabo said in his presentation delivered in The Straight.
Szabo’s personal experience with mental health problems illustrates his point about recovery. In high school, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. He also deferred his college education for four years due to depression. After recovery, Szabo graduated with honors from American University and is now a successful speaker in promoting mental health awareness — he has spoken to more than 500,000 young people and was chosen as the 2007 Best Male Performer by Campus Activities Magazine.
In the talk co-sponsored by Cornell Minds Matter and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, Szabo often highlighted the importance of mental health.
“Mental health is a concept that every single person should have,” he said. He also drew a distinction between mental health issues and mental health disorders. As extreme forms of mental health disorders often receive the most attention and media coverage, it is a common misconception to confuse general mental health issues with them. Szabo claimed that everyone encounters problems in life that can affect their mental health. “It is more positive to focus on mental health than to focus on mental disorders,” he said.
Szabo also stressed the prominence of mental health issues in the college scene by providing some thought-provoking statistics. While suicide is the second cause of death in college and one in four students suffers from mental health issues, 66 percent of young people do not seek help.
“One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is [people] going through emotions … and losing yourself because of emotions.” He also said other common problems include stress and sleep deprivation.
As a result, students may resort to alcohol and drugs as a means to cope with their problems. Szabo shared his personal experience on how he faced his mental disorders through drinking. As a past victim of bipolar disorder in high school, his emotions frequently lapsed into energetic highs and depressive lows.
“My mind was going through so much that I just wanted to shut my mind down,” he recalled. He also drowned his sorrows in alcohol when he suffered from depression in college, and did not recognize the need to change until he almost lost his life and passed out for 22 hours after drinking more than 13 shots one night.
“I chose to change at the rock bottom. Change isn’t easy. Change takes a lot of work,” he said. “It takes more strength to deal with [problems] than to ignore it … weakness to me is not changing,” he said.
He further encouraged the audience to be agents of change and to “empower” the people they know with mental health issues by engaging in a conversation instead of a confrontation with them. He also suggested the audience consult with mental health professionals on how to help their friends.
“[People with mental health issues] may have similar symptoms, but they have different experiences … there is no quick fix,” he said.
He implied that the value of conversation cannot be replaced by medication, which should function as a mood stabilizer that helps the person find a solution. However, he also offered the practical advice that students should avoid going downhill along with the people they help. “In this case, take a step back and help yourself,” he said.
While the audience often responded enthusiastically to Szabo’s entertaining talk and lively jokes, some audience members also found his talk inspiring.
“He really connected with a lot of people in the audience … He talks about people being stressed … bragging rights and competition. I can see that in myself and my friends,” said Talia Wissner-Levy ’09.
Dahlia Raymond ’08, president of Cornell Minds Matter, agreed.
“Cornell is a really competitive school. We’re ‘going through emotions’… but [we] should take some time out for ourselves.”
“He’s really good at breaking down the barriers, some of the fears and myths on mental illness and mental health,” said Catherine Thrasher-Carroll, mental health promotion coordinator of Gannett.
“Everyone is responsible for their mental health,” she added. Students visiting Gannett are now encouraged to fill out a screening test for stress and depression. “[It] helps students to talk about hard issues in a more natural way,” she said.
Many options are available at Cornell for mental health counselling. Apart from Counselling and Psychological Services at Gannett, students can also seek help from their academic advising office, EARS (Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services) and Let’s
As Szabo said, “Don’t be a victim of the past, but a survivor of the future. It’s your choice.”