Ross Szabo was the kind of high school senior that college admissions officers dreamed about. He played varsity basketball, volunteered for the Special Olympics and Students Against Drunk Driving, and was elected student body president.
He was also living with bipolar disorder, a diagnosis he'd received two years earlier. He told no one about his inner struggle. He felt so alone that he began to think about nothing except ending his own life. In January, he attempted suicide. He was hospitalized for two weeks.
"I had the classic symptoms: the broken knuckles, the hallucinations, the sleepless nights," he says. "I went into a really deep state of depression. When I got out of the hospital and went back to school, everything was different. People were spreading rumors about me. I lost friends."
Nearly two decades later, Ross has spent most of his adult life advocating on behalf of other young people fighting the same battles he faced when he was their age. He's determined to destroy the stigmas around mental health issues so people with similar struggles feel comfortable asking for help and talking openly about what they're going through.
"The goal is to give people tools they can use to actually work on their mental health. I want to normalize mental health rather than isolate mental illness," says Szabo, who has since formed a mental health speakers bureau, authored a book and built a mental health curriculum that's reached more than 80,000 students across the country. "The most important thing we can do is empower young people to start opening these conversations."
Natalie Muñoz is one of the young people Szabo has fought for. The college freshman has gone through extreme bouts of depression since she was in seventh grade. "I was having dark thoughts; I was cutting myself, doing all these things to cope," she says. "I didn't understand that I might have a mental illness until a few years later."
After her diagnosis, a school counselor approached Muñoz about forming a club for other students going through similar struggles. The teacher was partnering with Bring Change 2 Mind, a mental health awareness organization co-founded by actress Glenn Close, whose sister, Jessie, lives with bipolar disorder and nephew, Calen, lives with schizoaffective disorder.
Muñoz is a part of BC2M's high school program, LETSBringChange2Mind (which stands for Let's Erase The Stigma). LETS BC2M launched last fall with 25 mental health clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area, and since then, it's swelled to more than double the number of participating high schools.
An outpouring of students signed up for Muñoz's club -- 170 in total. Members meet twice a month to talk openly about their own experiences or those of people close to them. Last year, the club sponsored a "Stress Less Week" in which participants passed out resources like cards that listed stress reduction exercises and support hotlines. "We got the whole student body involved," Muñoz says. "At the end of the week, we had a rally with guest speakers, and I told my story to the whole school."
This weekend, for the first time, LETS BC2M is bringing together students in similar clubs all over the Bay Area for its first annual student summit in San Franicsco. Szabo is keynoting the event, which will also include guided workshops, art classes, a luncheon and chance to reflect on the clubs' individual successes.
"Every school has its own unique environment, dynamic and population," BC2M Executive Director Pamela Harrington says. "We want to provide an opportunity for kids to cross pollinate, talk to one another, share what worked and didn't work in their schools. We need to applaud these students for becoming leaders in mental health advocacy and thank them for being part of a community of incredibly mindful adolescents who are trying to make change."
BC2M was founded in 2010 with an explicit goal: End the stigma surrounding mental illness. Since then, the organization has reached billions of people through public service announcements, evidence-based programs at the universities and high schools that engage students to reduce stigma and discrimination, and social movements that provide platforms to share, connect, and learn. All of BC2M's work is underpinned by scientific research that examines which awareness tactics have the most meaningful effects.
The research is being spearheaded by Dr. Stephen Hinshaw from the University of California: Berkeley and Dr. Bennett Leventhal from the University of California: San Francisco School of Medicine. Their subjects, which include both high school and college students, complete surveys measuring their knowledge, attitude, and intended actions before, during, and after their participation in mental health clubs.
"Attitudes toward gay marriage have changed radically in our country in recent decades, fueled largely by adolescents and young adults," Dr. Hinshaw says. "Can we turn the corner and find ways to increase acceptance of people struggling with mental health issues?"
Harrington believes the answer to that question is yes. "This is a first step in educating and empowering a whole new generation of mental health advocates," she says. "If we can affect change with this group, we won't be thinking of stigma in 20 years. Stigma will be gone because of these kids."
Learn more about LETS BC2M and the upcoming summit here.
Disclosure: the author of this post is currently working as a consultant for this organization.