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From Loss, a New Purpose
Elise Craig | Photo: Jen Siska | March 3, 2016
In the wake of their own family tragedy, a Woodside mother and daughter work to help others impacted by mental illness.
Just two weeks after Stacy Drazan first discovered that her teenage daughter, Shelby, a student at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, had been cutting herself, Shelby admitted that she’d been having suicidal thoughts. It was a Sunday. And the therapist Stacy had found to treat her daughter didn’t have an emergency phone number—just an answering machine. “We really didn’t even know what she was dealing with until we were already in a crisis situation,” Stacy says. “And with the stigma around mental illness, it’s all very hidden. We were scrambling.”
After consulting another therapist, Stacy was able to check Shelby into Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital that Sunday. Two days later, when a bed opened up, she moved to Mills-Peninsula Medical Center, the closest impatient adolescent mental health care facility to their Woodside home. And for the next year, the Drazans, who have no family history of mental illness, struggled to save their daughter, finding psychiatrists and emergency care, and even sending her to a monthlong program for teens in Malibu. “Shelby was always willing to get treated,” Stacy says. “She never resisted. She did everything by the book in terms of getting herself help. And we still lost her.”
In the aftermath of Shelby’s death by suicide in October of 2014, Stacy and her older daughter, Mackenzie, a sophomore at Duke University, did the only thing they knew to do. They started fighting for other families facing the devastation of adolescent mental illness, working to combat the stigma and provide the resources they wish they’d had when they first discovered that Shelby was sick. “I didn’t know how to be a sister to someone going through something like this,” Mackenzie says. “Everything I had to learn from experience, I wish I’d known from the beginning.”
For Mackenzie, that fight started with a website. When she was looking for help dealing with her sister’s illness, the resources she could find were centered on the patient, not a patient’s loved ones. There wasn’t much help for someone trying to support someone else. So she made it her mission to create that resource herself, turning to website templates WordPress, Weebly and Squarespace, and reaching out to the local medical community for help. That’s how she found Dr. Amy Heneghan, a pediatrician who shepherds an internship program at Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Heneghan introduced her to pediatricians and psychiatrists who pointed Mackenzie to the kinds of information that patients—and friends of patients—would need. By the first week of August 2015, her website, Teaching Everyone About Mental Health, or TEAM, was up and running. “She came to me with a fully blown contribution to the world of mental health,” says Heneghan, who wears a rubber bracelet bearing the website’s name. “She went at this in a very 21st century way. I recommend TEAM to patients all the time.”
The website, which Mackenzie continues to work on with the help of Bertram Labs, now includes everything from advice on how to talk to teens about self-harm to patient reviews of providers, primers on psychotic disorders, self-harm and anxiety disorders, and even instructions about how to help someone who is suicidal. Mackenzie doesn’t write any of the content herself—it’s all pulled from sources like the National Eating Disorders Collaboration and the International Bipolar Foundation. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Mackenzie says. “All of the information is out there—it’s just not focused as a resource for people supporting others.” The only content that comes from nonexperts is the blog, where users are invited to share their own experiences with mental illness to help fight stigma. “A big part of stigma is a lack of education,” Mackenzie says. “People are afraid of what they don’t know.”
And that stigma keeps people from seeking treatment, even in an area that has been hit hard by teen suicide, as the Peninsula has. Despite the fact that parents have been petrified over the much-reported-on suicide clusters at Palo Alto high schools—which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently came in to study—therapists like Menlo Park family and marriage therapist Naomi Stoller still see parents who are afraid to recognize that their children might have mental health problems. “There’s such a sense of embarrassment about it,” she says. “There’s so much competitiveness and desire to have the best kid on the block. That’s what I love about this website. It shows people, it’s not just me struggling. It’s many of us.”
For that reason, Stacy and Mackenzie are very open about the eating disorder, anxiety and depression that Shelby faced; late last year, they gave a talk about her in front of hundreds of people at a $500-a-plate fundraiser hosted by AIM for Mental Health, a Carmel-based charity that raises money for mental health research. “I think we’re at the equivalent point of where we were with AIDS,” Stacy says. “No one wanted to talk about it. Now you’re used to hearing about AIDS fundraisers. I just hope it won’t take us 25 years.”
As Mackenzie works to provide information, Stacy is fighting for better adolescent mental health care services. She doesn’t want other parents to be in the position that she was on that Sunday afternoon, with a child in crisis and no idea where to turn. “Shelby was probably starting to deal with mental health issues starting in the seventh or eighth grade,” Stacy says. “We had no idea. If we’d started early treatment, maybe that would have changed her trajectory.”
In June of 2015, she started working with Dr. Steven Adelsheim, a clinical professor of psychiatry and the director of Stanford Psychiatry’s Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, who was already working to bring an Australian youth mental health program called headspace to the United States. The idea behind headspace is easy access and early intervention, which is particularly important, Adelsheim says, because half of all mental illnesses start by age 14; 75 percent by age 24. “People are really surprised at how early these symptoms tend to start in young people,” Adelsheim says. “What we’re missing nationally is a system that allows people to access services early on, in a confidential way.” In Australia, which has about half the population of the state of California, there are more than 80 headspace locations in both rural and urban areas, where people between the age of 12 and 25 can go for help with mental health issues, as well as sexual health issues and substance abuse.
Other countries—including Ireland, Israel and Denmark—are already implementing their own headspace programs, but our complicated health care system means that figuring out how to make the program work in the United States will be tricky. Stacy and her business partner, Susan Bird, are working with other organizations to develop a strategic business plan for a national U.S. headspace model. Once it’s complete, they’ll move on to fundraising, courting corporate sponsorships and seeking government help. Stacy has also traveled to Australia to see the clinics in person. There’s a lot of work to be done, but with the help of Stacy and Bird, community partners and organizations, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Adelsheim believes that they could bring headspace pilot programs to the Bay Area within a year.
In the meantime, Stacy and Mackenzie will continue to talk about Shelby and to fight to end the stigma around mental illness. “In the moment after her death, I didn’t know what to do, but I realized very quickly,” Stacy says. “She was a fabulous person who was really interested in helping others. It’s very easy to talk about her.”
Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley