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Reach out for help, says suicide prevention speaker

by Richard Veilleux - September 15, 2008

Almost all those suffering from anxiety, depression, or other mental disorders who seek help recover, according to Ross Szabo. Yet, for any number of reasons, few college students struggling to control their lives ever do.

“If you had a bone sticking out of your pants leg, you wouldn’t say you’re all right, would you? No. You’d go get some help,” said Szabo, director of youth outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign.

“Your leg is just as much a part of your body as your arm, your shoulders, your heart, your head. You deal with breaks. It should be the same with your brain.”

Szabo, delivering the keynote speech for Suicide Prevention Week at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts Sept. 9, said that 66 percent of college students who are suffering from some form of mental distress – most commonly anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and ADHD – refuse to get help. Nor do they tell anybody, even close friends, that they’re in distress.

That’s a recipe for disaster, Szabo said, one that leads people to alcohol, drugs, self-destruction, and – for too many students at college and high school – attempted suicide. Each year, more than 1,100 suicide attempts among college students succeed.

Using mostly personal anecdotes – his older brother was hospitalized with bipolar disorder when Szabo was 11 years old, and Szabo himself was diagnosed as bipolar as a teenager – he kept the audience’s attention throughout his funny, energetic, interactive program.

Through it all, though, he kept returning to his central theme: Talk to people. And if you notice a friend or colleague seems to be struggling, reach out and help them.

“If I didn’t reach out and get help when I was in high school, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said, referring to his own suicide attempt. \

Students, he said, also have to “choose to end the stereotypes, change your personal bias” toward people who acknowledge that they’re struggling, or that they’ve seen a counselor, because that attitude is a key reason why people avoid discussing their problems or going to a mental health clinic.

Szabo said that those stereotypes are what pushed him onto the talk circuit.

Following his hospitalization in high school, a psychologist visited his high school class to discuss mental health. Throughout the talk, his classmates kept laughing. But to Szabo, just out of treatment, there was nothing funny about the talk. He pulled his teacher into the hallway and complained vigorously.

“‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ the teacher asked me. He challenged me,” Szabo said.

Szabo took the challenge and has been speaking to high school and college groups ever since. In the seven years he has been touring colleges, he has spoken to more than 700,000 people.

Last year alone, he racked up more than 180,000 miles flying coast-to-coast and everywhere in between to deliver speeches. In 2007, he was named best male performer by Campus Activities magazine.

Closing his talk, he again challenged the students, as his teacher had challenged him, to help themselves and help others: “We all go through something difficult at some point. You can learn to become stronger. You can make a choice how to deal with it,” he said.

“It takes no strength to do nothing. It takes no strength to not care. Be strong.”

Although Suicide Prevention Week is now over, UConn’s director of counseling and mental health services, Barry Schreier, says suicide prevention efforts will continue.

The web site created for the week –www.suicideprevention.uconn.edu– has been made permanent. The site provides links both to UConn resources and a number of external sites.

In addition, QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) training, the nationally recognized standarad for suicide prevention training, will be offered year-round, free of charge, to any campus or community groups, departments, or organizations interested.

QPR trains people in how to identify the warning signs of suicide, how to ask questions about suicide, and how to refer someone to a professional for help.

For information on QPR or other suicide awareness programs, contact Schreier at 860-486-4705.

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