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Young Mental Health Advocates Hope to Educate College Students


College can be a stressful time for many young people. Students are away from home for the first time, and have to deal with increased responsibility, as well as a heavier workload. One organization is hoping to educate U.S. students about depression and other mental illnesses, before potential problems overwhelm them. VOA's Crystal Park has this report by Barry Unger.

Ross Szabo was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 16. "At 16 years old, I started going through a lot of symptoms. Not sleeping for four days at a time. Not sleeping for more than an hour a night for two weeks at a time, and not needing sleep," said Szabo. "I was always active. And, my mood would change at the flip of a switch. I would start hitting walls, start kicking things, flipping out on (acting crazy in front of) my parents, flipping out on my friends."

More than 10 years later, he is now an advocate for mental health awareness and speaks out to high school and college students. But Szabo says he took the long road to get here.

"You always hear [that] the medication and the diagnosis and the treatment are the most important things. But I really hated myself. The disorder led to a lot of negative feelings and anger, and I really took that out on myself. I really needed to care about myself, before I could deal with the bipolar disorder or anything else," said Szabo.

Szabo is back at his alma mater -- American University in Washington. He is speaking to a new generation of mental health advocates at the annual Active Minds conference.

Active Minds is a non-profit organization that strives to educate college students about mental health issues. Student advocates attend their conference from colleges across the U.S.

Guest speakers included healthcare professionals, lawyers and authors. The conference also featured student-run workshops, focusing on ways to reach out and educate college students.

Alison Malmon is the founder and executive director of Active Minds. She started the organization after her brother committed suicide.

"He started experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder his freshman year," said Malmon. "But he was scared, ashamed, did not feel comfortable talking to anyone about what he was experiencing or feeling."

Malmon says Active Minds helps to break down the stigmas surrounding mental health issues that prevented her brother from getting help in time.

"It offers students a venue to express their concerns and stories, the education to know what to say to their friends. That education was never there," said Malmon.

Jacob Hanna is one of the leaders of the Active Minds chapter at American University.

"We basically just offer a friendly person to talk to. We would then refer them to the counseling center on campus, or the health and wellness center. Or (we would) just try to help them, by sending them in the right direction, and offering a wall to bounce thoughts and feelings off," said Hanna.

Ross Szabo says college students need to know that receiving a diagnosis of a mental illness is not the end of the world.

"It is a starting point. It is by no means the end. It is going to take a lot of time, a lot of work, a lot of effort. Nowhere could anyone ever say these things are fun, quick and easy to do. But, with work, time and effort, they are treatable. They are things you can get through," said Szabo.

The student advocates at Active Minds hope educating and informing their peers about mental health issues will help them better cope with the stress of college life.

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