Mental Health Champions: Why & How Ross Szabo of Human Power Project Is Helping To Champion Mental…

Posted on

Mental Health Champions: Why & How Ross Szabo of Human Power Project Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

Whale watching. There’s nothing like seeing massive animals to remind you how small you actually are. It gives me peace of mind to know that at any point in my life when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed there are whales just swimming around the planet.

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Ross Szabo.

Ross Szabo is an award-winning mental health speaker, advocate, and author. He founded and serves as both the Wellness Director at Geffen Academy at UCLA and CEO of Human Power Project. A social innovator who has pioneered the youth mental health movement, he created the first national youth mental health speaker’s bureau, a program that has inspired millions to address their mental health.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth…Pennsylvania. I had a really fun childhood. My backyard was cornfields as far as the eye could see. I spent almost all of my time outdoors playing sports, camping, and wandering around the countryside. That freedom was great before I was a teenager. Once I became a teen the freedom took a sharp turn into partying and making interesting decisions around risk. To be fair I think I could’ve made those decisions anywhere I lived, but my childhood definitely took a sharp turn in my teens.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

Human Power Project creates mental health curricula for people of all ages. Our goal is to teach mental health the same way we teach physical health. A lot of people use this tagline and I think it’s important to emphasize that there are steps we can take to do this. We provide a curriculum that teaches a base definition of mental health, how to separate mental health challenges into different categories, how to frame mental health in a constructive manner and how to build skills to work on one’s emotions. Our goal is to normalize mental health instead of isolating mental illness.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I had a lot of personal experience with mental health disorders. I went through a lot of trauma between the ages of 11–12. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 16. When I was a senior in high school, I attempted to take my own life. I graduated from high school and went to American University. I had a major relapse with bipolar disorder 2 months into my freshman year. I spent the next four years going in and out of different colleges and treatment centers. When I was 22, I had a massive rock bottom moment and was able to begin the process of balancing my mental health. It’s been a continuing journey since age 22. The most important lesson I learned is that I didn’t choose to go through these experiences, but I could choose to change the way I coped with them.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I’ve always tried to identify the gaps in our society and fill those gaps in meaningful ways. I was the Director of Outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign from 2002 to 2010. I had the opportunity to speak to over 1 million people and create the first youth mental health speakers’ bureau in the country. Listening to the same questions in every part of the country gave me a good guide on what needed to change. In 2013, I started Human Power Project, because I felt like we needed to move past mental health awareness and start teaching people skills for managing mental health.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When I started creating the curriculum in 2013, there was a lot of doubt about if the curriculum would work. There were some mental health organizations that were pretty adamant that my approach wouldn’t be successful. In 2016, the curriculum received the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors Excellence in Education Award. It was a really powerful moment in showing that mental health curriculum can make a big difference.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I’ve always tried to see what systems are effective and follow those models. I was really fortunate to find some mentors early in the start of my company. An international sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, decided to fund the development of my curriculum and launch it to all of its members. I was able to follow other business models in the education space to grow my company and utilize existing systems. I wouldn’t be here without those mentors and their help.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

The stigma has definitely lessened a lot in the past 20 years. The main issues that persist are that a lot of people feel shame, embarrassment, and fear around having a mental health disorder. Some of those people don’t want to burden others with their problems, so they suffer in silence. Some people think it’s a sign of weakness to seek help. A lot of people don’t have someone they can trust to be vulnerable with to talk about their emotions. It’s a combination of all of these factors that can really affect people in harmful ways.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

What a softball question! Should I also talk about world peace and healing political divides? The most important thing that society and governments can do is make access to mental health care more affordable and available. We have a massive lack of accessibility to mental health care. We don’t have enough mental health professionals and even when they do exist, it’s hard to find quality providers. For individuals, the most important thing people can do is recognize their coping mechanisms and do what they can to change them. Mental health issues are impacted by socioeconomic status, race, environment, and other identity issues. Working through all of those aspects can feel impossible, so don’t give up and find what resources you can.

What are the 5 strategies you use to promote your own well-being and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. Breathwork. I’ve been doing this method of breathwork where you do the same pattern of breath for 21 minutes. It helps make me present in my emotions and it releases so many memories, feelings, and pain. It’s something that has changed my life significantly.
  2. Therapy. Finding a good therapist is hard, but when you do find one it can make a world of difference. I have a therapist who helps build on the breathwork and explore my past experiences in deeper ways to help me understand why I do what I do now.
  3. Exercise. I like lifting, hiking, paddle boarding, and yoga. It helps me refuel my energy and connect with nature.
  4. Whale watching. There’s nothing like seeing massive animals to remind you how small you actually are. It gives me peace of mind to know that at any point in my life when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed there are whales just swimming around the planet.
  5. Relationships. Friendships, family, and relationships are all really powerful ways to learn more about yourself, support others, and have a sense of community.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Books: The Power of Habit, Your Resonant Self, The Brain That Changes Itself

Podcasts: Man Enough, Emotional Support Podcast

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It’s all about finding connections where you can. In today’s world we can feel so disconnected. Focus on something you are passionate about and take one small step to support that cause or help others. Even something as small as just reaching out to someone you care about can make a huge difference.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can learn more about my work and watch some of my talks at

Read more about the Human Power Project and learn about the curriculum at

IG: @rossszabo

Twitter: @rosseszabo

Facebook: Ross Szabo

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Mental Health Champions: Why & How Ross Szabo of Human Power Project Is Helping To Champion Mental… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.