Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Review of Behind Happy Faces

Tomorrow is National Depression Screening Day. A few days after I participated in a bloggers’ conference call about campus mental health, a copy of Behind Happy Faces arrived at my doorstep. Written by Ross Szabo and Melanie Hall, this book is a very personal look at what happened to Szabo when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder his senior year in high school. The authors weave other stories into the message that, despite the stigma society attaches to mental health issues, help is out there and that with treatment, there is reason for great hope.

The authors don’t sugarcoat their message though. While they point out statistics may show that “a large majority of people who seek help can see improvement in their symptoms,” they must first be willing to ask for help.

Szabo and Hall have written this book as a guide for young adults. Yet, their work is valuable for those who love and work with young people. They touch on what I believe to be the most difficult issue and offer suggestions about how to get those young people to see the need for help. Common mental disorders like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder are discussed. And Szabo describes how in his case, he fell into substance abuse to self-medicate the pain of his illness as so many other people do.

Whether it’s planning, maintenance, understanding the illness or adjusting one’s lifestyle, the authors stress “you are not your disorder.” They write: “The reason this distinction is important is because it casts a more positive outlook on your treatment. You’ll start to think of your disorder as something you can manage, not something you’re stuck with, or something that can’t be help.”

While this is a straightforward and realistic look at mental illness in young people, Szabo’s story provides much encouragement. From the low point of wanting to take his own life, he has come to terms with his illness and has an understanding of what it takes to manage the bipolar disorder. The authors promise no easy answers but they do offer advice from the mental health community and Szabo’s personal experience. Today, Szabo is Director of Youth Outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign and a popular campus speaker for CAMPUSPEAK, Inc. where he has reached thousands of young people. You might also catch him penning a post for the Huffington Post. He is a man with a mission after all.

Behind Happy Faces is a book that ought to be on the bookshelf of every high school and college counselor, adviser, teacher and administrator.


Sarge Charlie said...

Don't know much about bi-polar but have been there did that with Depression, it sucks and it took me 30 years to accept that I had a problem.

Lorelei said...

I don't think there's much of a stigma anymore, at least not compared to what it was just 15 years or so ago. Fifteen years ago I was not allowed to discuss with anyone at work (per my boss) my anxiety and panic issues. Nowadays it's "normal" or "usual" to have such issues, and you're now some sort of freak if you're NOT on an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. Maybe this is just here on the East Coast...

Sheila said...

You took a long time. Let's hope the troubled young people of today can be convinced that they don't have to suffer in silence.

I know the stigma is less and you are right that many people have sought help and are in treatment with medications or counseling. However, until emotional and mental health is treated as seriously as other illnesses, I still think there is that stigma. People will not seek the help they need if we don't find a way to get to them.

Note: I just heard about the Cleveland shooting where a high school student opened fire. We will continue to turn on the TV and hear that this has happened at another school because a student went off. These young people need to get help before the time-bomb inside of their head explodes and they either hurt themselves or others.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such an important and informative review, Sheila. The timing is ideal when you think about the news of the Cleveland shooting today. I, too, would highly recommend this book for all young adults as well as anyone who deals with them as you say - teachers, counselors, PARENTS. There is also a great website where you can find more info about the book, and it features links to organizations where kids can seek help or get involved in the effort to stop stigma: WWW.BEHINDHAPPYFACES.COM. Szabo is a great speaker. There is even a link that tells you how to book him as a speaker - I would suggest that people talk to the counselors/activities directors at their children's schools to suggest they bring Ross in to speak!

Sheila said...

You make an excellent suggestion. Just in the conference call with Ross, I felt his energy and could see how he would connect to young people. I don't know how much he charges, but I could see how a big school district could sponsor his visit as a service to families and definitely colleges should think about having him visit.

Back when my older son was in elementary school, a 14 year old student took his own life. And sadly, a couple of other students followed suit shortly thereafter. It devastated the community to lose these young people. We must recognize that the pain is there for many more young people than we realize. How do we reach them? It certainly isn't by pretending everything will be okay. Sometimes it won't unless there is intervention and treatment.

If nothing else, we will continue to ask WHY? every time there is another school shooting. This was a troubled young man. How sad that this happened!

Marion said...


Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I am going to recommend it to my daughter and her husband, both teachers.

Understanding mental illness in the young is so very important. I think I have enough knowledge to see signs, etc. of this disease, but there is always something more I need to learn. This book, written by someone who has been there in his young years, will help so many people in recognizing and AIDING the teen, when help and understanding is needed the most.

I feel so sad about those shootings...more indications that this kind of info is so important.

Palm Springs Savant said...

Sheila- I need to put my Mom in touch with your blog. She is a shrink who practices in NH but is starting a website and blog also. I keep telling her about your blog...we have the same last name so if you ever see a comment from her you'll know its my mom!


Dr.Virginia Rockhill said...

Hi Sheila, Rick told me about your blog. It is refreshing to read about people who understand the day to day difficulties of mental illness. As a Clinical Psychologist, I have witnessed the devastation that serious mental illnesses have created in young people's lives. It is absolutely correct that the first step is to accept that something is wrong and to seek help for the problem. Secondly, a person must find a therapist who will truly listen to not only what a person is saying, but to listen "beyond" what is really going on and to piece together the overt as well as covert symptoms. Self-medicating with alcohol or non-prescribed drugs can only lead to more pain and suffering, create legal problems and delay a return to productivity. Keep up the good work. Virginia Rockhill, Ph.D.

Sheila said...

I think teachers like your daughter and her husband could benefit from reading this. Certainly, they have a role in understanding what's going on with their charges too.

Thanks for telling your mom.

Dr. Rockhill,
I don't know how you do it, but thanks for the work I'm sure you do each day. A good psychologist, counselor or psychiatrist is critical to help get lives back. This isn't easy but the consequences are so serious if it's not done. Thanks for visiting and I hope Rick can talk you into starting a blog as a way to reach more people.

Jackie said...

Sadly there is still a huge stigma here in South Africa. I was upset to see how one bipolar lady, in my former job, was treated when having problems. As a depressive type since very young I really feel for people like Szabo and shall keep a look out for him at Huffington where I often visit online.

Miss Trashahassee said...

Great post, Sheila. I think mental health ought to be treated the same as physical health, and I just don't understand how in this day and age anyone would think differently.

Pancreas - not enough insulin produced = diabetes

Brain - neurotransmitters off balance = depression or bipolar disorder (etc. etc. etc.)

The brain is every bit as much a body part as the pancreas, but some people who wouldn't think twice about treating diabetes wouldn't dare pop a Prozac.

I just don't get it.

Miss T

Sheila said...

That's interesting to see how South Africans view mental disorders. Maybe one day they will be treated properly.

Miss T,
The example you gave is a great one but we have so many negative stereotypes to overcome and I think that stands in the way.

Naomi said...

Great post Sheila. It's a shame that even in this day and age, there is still sometimes a stigma attached to mental illness. Mental health is just as important as physical health in our society and it is important to raise awareness, particularly when it affects the young.