Shelby Drazan aboard Marco in 2013
In a sport where mental toughness is paramount, it is easy to sweep the conversation of mental illness under the rug – athletes are supposed to be strong and resilient if they want to be successful, right? Recently, equestrians have come forward to put mental health prominent on the industry’s agenda and to fight the stigma about mental illness. Among these equestrians is amateur rider, model, and recent Duke graduate, Mackenzie Drazan.
Four years ago, Mackenzie lost her younger sister Shelby to suicide. While Shelby was struggling, Mackenzie was also struggling with ways to help her sister. “I was trying to put myself in Shelby’s shoes, but because mental illness is disorders of the mind, it’s impossible to know what mental illness feels like unless you have experienced it yourself. I was constantly in fear of saying something that might trigger her and for awhile was walking around Shelby on eggshells. But now I know that was the wrong approach entirely.”
In learning about mental health through Shelby, Mackenzie realized that her mission lies within the mental health field; in working to leverage technology to help revolutionize the way we access and think about mental health care. Inspired by her sister, Mackenzie, in short, is dedicated to reinventing the approach to handling mental illness.
Mackenzie has since founded Teaching Everybody About Mental Health (TEAM) and most recently co-founded MiResource to help people fighting mental illness and to offer support to their family and friends. TEAM (myteam.org) is an online “pocket guide” for supporting a loved one with their mental health through consolidated, action-oriented information written by mental health experts.
“After Shelby passed away there was so much that finally clicked in my mind that I wish I could have gone back and told myself when Shelby first started struggling. You don’t need to know how mental illnesses work to be able to care for someone. You don’t have to understand it in order to be compassionate and supportive.”
Mackenzie invites sufferers and supporters to tell their stories through anonymous submissions on the TEAM website. “It’s honest, strong, real stories like these that start productive conversations about mental health,” she encourages. Additionally, TEAM has initiated the #ShareYours campaign on Instagram (@myteam.social), a support network to help us learn as a community the best way to approach mental health.
Still in its startup phase, MiResource lends support to make the process of finding the right mental health care easier. Currently, MiResource software helps university counseling centers connect students to local therapists at campuses such as Duke University, Montclair State University, James Madison University, Cornell University, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
In addition to making an impact in the mental health field, Mackenzie and her family continue to extend their efforts to the equine industry. The Shelby Drazan Memorial Award started three years ago to recognize and support a junior equitation rider with transportation for their horse to the Indoor Horse Show Circuit and fees towards entries for the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, in Harrisburg, PA.
“When Shelby passed away, we wanted to get her equitation horse home. He was at Harrisburg, as prior to Shelby’s passing, she had competed at the USEF Medal Finals. Greg Otterson and Tex Sutton were amazing- within 24 hours Marco was on a plane home,” Makenzie recalls. “Greg came to us and had this whole idea of sponsoring a junior who could not otherwise afford to go to indoors by covering their transportation costs for the horse and he wanted to do it in Shelby’s honor.”
Mackenzie exemplifies the model recipient of this award to be “someone who cares for others and has a true love and compassion for horses and the sport. That kid who spends hours at the barn and would do anything to be able to clean that famous horse’s stall! The kid who watches and truly supports their competitors with genuine encouragement and support. The first to congratulate the winner when they themself were sitting on top and made a minor mistake that cost them the class. Beyond the horses and the shows, someone who shows a true compassion for other people and supports it through community service or volunteering- something for someone other than themselves.”
Someone like Shelby.