In the months after Mackenzie Drazan lost her younger sister, Shelby, to suicide last year, the 20-year-old Woodside resident and Duke University sophomore says she learned a lot of things she wished she had known while her sister was still alive.
"When I was trying to help my sister," she says, it was "a very steep learning curve."
Shelby Drazan was 17 when she died in October 2014. Shelby had been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety and was struggling with an eating disorder, her sister says.
"It's hard to know even where to start," Mackenzie says. "It's hard to know how to be a sister, how to be a friend" to someone with a mental illness.
She decided a website would help her share what she's learned in the past year. The website, Teaching Everyone About Mental Health, or TEAM, is designed to help the family and friends of those with mental illness.
"Hopefully we can lower the learning curve for everybody else," she says.
Mackenzie gathered information on the Internet and tried to make it easily accessible, so "everybody can get the information they need in a very concise manner that's super user-friendly and not complicated," she says. She wants the site to be "easy to understand, no big words, very much just as if I was having a conversation with someone," she says, and filled with "really good information."
The TEAM website, for example, lists "what are the right questions to ask" and what treatments are available for specific illnesses. One section has first-person stories from those who have struggled with everything from depression and alcohol addiction to body image problems or self-doubt. There are links to online mental health screenings and reviews of mental health professionals.
A section called "Help" has step-by-step instructions about situations, such what to do if someone is having a panic attack or a manic episode.
Other advice found on the website under "How-tos" includes ways to encourage a friend or family member to get help, or to help them to stay on their medication.
While Mackenzie put together most of the current version of the website herself, using a mashup of templates from Weebly, WordPress and Squarespace, she had a lot of help finding the content.
Last summer she interned at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation with pediatrician Dr. Amy Heneghan, who introduced her to a number of professionals in the mental health field. They advised her on what was important to include on the TEAM site.
Friends who know how to code are now helping her to refine the website.
Mackenzie also speaks from personal experience with brain disorders. "I have ADD (attention deficit disorder) and I'm also dyslexic. These are things that I will live with forever," she says. But the problems were diagnosed when she was in second grade and she learned to use tools for coping with them.
"Since I learned how to deal with it early on, it's not been a barrier," she says. The analogy she likes is: "I have two boat anchors dragging in the sand behind me, but I learned how to put them in wheelbarrows, so it's a little bit easier to drag them along."
She believes that those struggling with more serious mental health issues can also be helped to construct their own "wheelbarrows."
Her mother, Stacy Drazan, is also supporting projects in the mental health field, including trying to locate adolescent psychiatry beds locally and looking at the possibility of starting an adolescent mental health/physical health center based on the Australian government's centers called "headspace."
When Shelby needed to be hospitalized, her mother says, she had to go to Mills Health Center in San Mateo because it has the closest adolescent psychiatric hospital beds. After missing a month of school, Shelby returned to Sacred Heart Prep and made up her missed academic work.
"She was making a slow progress to coming back to herself," Stacy Drazan says.
"She was still very active," Mackenzie says. "If you saw her out in public, unless you knew her really well, you'd have no idea. But (she was) still hurting, so, so much."
That summer Shelby attempted suicide, her mother says. Shelby then spent a month in a residential program in Southern California and once again "we seemed to have the real Shelby back," Stacy Drazan says. Shelby was on medication and seeing a therapist, but also back at school, horseback riding competitively on a national level and applying to universities.
And then, just a day after seeing a therapist who noted she was doing well, and after a morning chat with her visiting grandparents about celebrating Christmas, "we lost her," Stacy Drazan says.
"We only realized she was struggling a year before that," her mother says.
The Drazans say they hope talking publicly about what happened to Shelby will ease some of the stigma attached to mental illness.
"A lot of people are struggling," Stacy Drazan says, "a lot of people especially in this area. We've got to help get rid of the stigma so that people can seek help, and earlier."
"Seeking help earlier will also help so many people not to get to a critical place."
The brain, she says, "really is just another organ in the body. It doesn't help to tell someone to be happy. It's like if you told someone to pick up a 100-pound weight with a broken arm. They couldn't do it."
Teaching young people more about mental health is important she says. "Some of it is developmental," she says. "Understanding that it's not something wrong with you, but a part of your development like other parts of your body I think that gives you a stronger place to work from."
"The thing about mental health is, it completely ignores socio-economic conditions," Mackenzie Drazan says. "It's totally blind to your race, your ethnicity." Mental health disorders also are "applicable to everyone, and all ages as well," she says.
More research is needed."There's a huge, huge, huge need for more funding in the field of mental health research," she says. "Right now the field is like breast cancer was many, many years ago," she says, with only limited types of treatment even though there are many variants of breast cancer, just as there are many variants of depression and other mental illnesses. "The researchers need to figure out what exactly is happening, so they can offer different treatments," she says.
One organization the Drazans have supported is Carmel-based AIM for Mental Health, which raises money for the International Mental Health Research Organization.
Mackenzie says all of the work she has done on the website and in learning about mental health issues has inspired her to change her major from political science to an open-ended major where she can chart her own course of study. She plans to focus on subjects such as psychology, communication, technology and social media. "What I want to do," she says, "is be the bridge" between research on mental health and "the real world" by figuring out how to get that information to the public.
"With one in four people struggling with a mental health condition," almost everyone knows someone dealing with the issue," Mackenzie says. "Everybody wants to talk about it everybody's just a little scared to talk about it."
She hopes TEAM will make those conversations easier.
● TEAM website.
● Orgaization that raises research funds: AIM for Mental Health.
● Australian adolescent mental health program: headspace.