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CT actor, 'Dinner for Schmucks' star releases 'Selfish,' a mental health 'playbook' and app

Hour - 5/22/2024

May 16—It felt, Stephanie Szotak recounted, like her mind was being hijacked.

"We wake up every morning and we dive into our phones. We look at our emails, texts, news, social media," she said, leaning further over the table of a busy Westport café. Making sure every word is heard amid a cacophony of conversation punctuated by the hissing steam release of an espresso machine, her eyes widen as a smile spreads. "Imagine if instead of that we could do the opposite, start our day by feeding our minds all the things that inspire us, encourage us, help us do better. How different would we react once we get all that."

So, she said, she decided to think like an athlete and a coach. She created her own mental health playbook that she could constantly look back at to adjust her strategy and pick her tools depending on the challenges and opportunities of the day. Now, the rubric she helped create is available for anyone to make their own playbooks.

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Szotak last year released "Self!sh: Step Into a Journey of Self-Discovery to Revive Confidence Joy and Meaning." The French-born actor who now lives in Westport said her husband helped her develop her own playbook while she was working on "A Million Little Things," a television show she starred in from 2018-2023. That playbook became "Selfish," which features a number of exercises to help people create their own playbook. It also has an accompanying app available for smart phones to help incorporate practices into everyday life. The books title is not about being selfish in the traditional sense, Szostak said, but rather being "self-ish" and making time for yourself every day to "reconnect to the best of you so that you can bring more of what you cherish and value to the world and those around you.

"You go to therapy and you leave the session. Maybe you had a breakthrough and you're like, 'Oh this is great. I'm going to practice this from now on.' But then you forget because life takes over," Szotak said. "My playbook has all the insight, guidance, reminders (and) things that bring me joy. Things that remind me to have my inner child come up so I can better respond to the day."

Szotak developed "Selfish" with Give an Hour, an organization focused on improving access to mental health services and educational materials. Give an Hour helped with consultant work on "A Million Little Things" to ensure accuracy in its depiction of mental health.

"Anything about mental health, a lot of it really has to do with a set of practices and a set of tools. It's the things you decide to engage with on a day-to-day," Give an Hour CEO Trina Clayeux said. "What I loved about the book was that she really set out a path where people can walk through the workbook and answer the questions to kind of cultivate and create what they're looking for. When you do the book over time it's really giving you a road map of where your interests are, where your passions are, how you want to show up for yourself. Where your routines are when it comes to your mental health and wellness."

One of the prompts the book gives is to reflect on your greatest achievements.

"The way we define achievements is not just the wins, the rah-rah successes," Szostak said. "It's also the moments where you really struggled and maybe thought you weren't going to make it through, but you found a way to keep going."

Szostak said she's had a few of those moments herself. Szostak first left France to study at William and Mary College in Virgina. The culture shock was immense, she said. She cried nearly every day and didn't know how to be herself speaking a foreign language in a foreign country.

So, she went back to France.

"Before I did this exercise, I would have thought my freshman year in college was a big loss and failure," she said. "But then looking back, that was one of my greatest achievements because it actually made me look for help. It made me learn. I came back eventually, and all those difficult moments eventually pushed me to look for tools to get better."

Heading back to France also allowed Szotak time to spend with her brother. She was 19, he was 28. He struggled with a heroin addiction that led to health complications including hepatitis C and HIV. "Selfish," she said, can also serve as a tool for people struggling with addiction.

"I've seen people go to rehab, leave rehab, they all have this new knowledge and guidance or feel uplifted and then they get back into life and those things slowly by slowly get further and further from your mind. What if they could have all this (the book) so they can reference it again and again."

Szotak went back to William and Mary for her junior and senior years. She graduated and spent almost a decade working in the fashion industry before becoming an actor. She starred in the film "Dinner for Schmucks" alongside Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and Jemaine Clement. It was her first time on a big movie set. Her first lead role.

"I was like, 'Oh my god, I don't fit in here. They're so much better than me. They have so much experience' and I was scared," Szostak said. "I hadn't done these exercises before. Had I done it, I could have been like, 'Oh, this is just the same scenario as William and Mary. It's OK. I'm learning. I don't have to have it all figured out. I'm going to get through this. I've done hard things before."

According to a 2023 report from the Pew Charitable Trust, the U.S. is facing a mental health crisis exacerbated by rises in youth mental health issues, substance use disorders and serious mental illness. A 2023 study from Mental Health America found that more than 50 million Americans — nearly a quarter of the adult population — experiences mental illness. About 15 percent of adults had a substance use disorder and 93.5 percent did not receive treatment. The study also found more than 2.7 million children experience major depression.

In Connecticut, the study found, almost 19-percent of adults, about 524,000 people, experience mental health issues. And 16.7 percent, or 465,000 adults in Connecticut, have a substance use disorder, while 20,000 people under 18 years old struggle with substance use and 42,000 experience major depression.

"Having people like Stephanie gives us the ability to reach into populations that may not have a great experience with mental health or they might not think they need to think about mental health because it might not be as normalized," Clayeux said. "It's given us these different platforms to reach out and to really expand mental health to be accessible, to be relevant and to be personalized."

Selfish is available online and wherever books are sold.

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