Everything on the surface seemed fine. No worries with friends, grades, social life. He seemed the model student. No one could have imagined the emotions he was hiding behind his happy face.

Sound familiar? This is where Ross Szabo’s story begins, but in truth, it could be any one of millions of young people’s stories, as mental health challenges are the largest problems facing teens and their families, schools and colleges today.

Ross Szabo was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 16. He was hospitalized for attempting to take his own life during his senior year of high school. And like so many other freshmen in college, he just wanted to fit in. And get by.

“Emotions happen. They don’t have to be life-ending.”—Ross Szabo

Living proof that most mental health challenges are highly treatable, Ross has turned his diagnosis into an opportunity to educate and empower others. As CEO of the Human Power Project, and co-author of Behind Happy Faces: Taking Charge of Your Mental Health, Ross has become a pioneer in the movement of youth mental health advocacy and has spoken to more than a million students, parents and educators about the importance of understanding their emotions and seeking help when they need it.

Opening the conversation

With the goal of Shedding Light on Mental Health, Ross Szabo will share his story at a community forum on Sunday afternoon, March 1, at the West Bloomfield High School Auditorium. An initiative of the Jewish Federation in partnership with community agencies and services, the program also will include a panel of mental health specialists to promote public awareness and advocacy for the mental health services available in the community, and to begin to address the issues of the stigma associated with mental illness.

Shedding Light is brought to the community with the support of the Stephen Schulman Millennium Fund for Jewish Youth. At the forum, representatives from numerous community agencies and mental health organizations will be available for questions and resources.

“Our purpose in Shedding Light is to begin a community dialogue on the mental health challenges facing all teens today,” says Wren Beaulieu-Hack, a community educator and Youth Professional Council Chairperson, “By starting those conversations, we can open better pathways of communication between teens struggling with emotional issues, those who love them and those who can make a positive change in their lives.”

Hidden in plain sight

For parents and even professionals, the line between mental wellness and illness is not easy to define. Parents concerned about the most common childhood onset disorders rarely know exactly what to look for. Is a child hyperactive or high spirited? Depressed or introspective? Obsessive or fastidious? It is just a stage or a disorder? Over-diagnosis runs the risk of attaching a stigmatizing label to a healthy child; under-diagnosis may leave a condition to worsen.

Behind Happy Faces

Behind Happy Faces, a guide for young adults by Ross Szabo and Melanie Hall

By the numbers, one has to wonder about the definition and disconcerting prevalence of mental illness. The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people will have an episode of mental illness in their lifetime. Mental and behaviorial problems are the single largest cause of disability on the planet.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Children and Adolescent Action Center:

  • Four million children and adolescents in the U.S. have a serious mental disorder that causes significant impairment at home, at school and with peers.
  • Of children ages 9 to 17, 21% have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment.
  • Half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14.
  • In any given year, only 20% of children with mental disorders are identified and receive mental health services.

Are we crazy?

“In Shedding Light, there’s hope to do more in our community than stand by and watch the rising numbers of teens who are suffering, families who can’t cope and the tragedies that befall those who are left to live with the stigmas and misconceptions of mental illness,” says Wren, “The path to mental wellness can be difficult and long for some, but as a community we must do more to lift the obstacles and ease the access to the resources, services and therapies we have available in our community.”

The Dark Secret of Mental Illness: Shedding Light on Mental Health An afternoon with Ross Szabo and a guest panel discussion for parents, teachers, healthcare professionals – all adults who care for teens. Sunday, March 1, 2015, 1 – 3:30 pm, West Bloomfield High School Auditorium, 4925 Orchard Lake Road

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