Over one billion people are affected by mental illness every year. Around one in seven people globally have one or more mental health or substance abuse disorders and almost 50% of Americans will suffer from some sort of mental illness such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders or drug and addiction in their lifetimes.
After losing her younger sister Shelby to depression in 2014, San Francisco-based model Mackenzie Drazan has been working to change the stigma around mental illness. Her goal: “to revolutionize the way we access mental health care.” Through activism and two organizations that she founded, TEAM and MiResource, this 24-year old helps those struggling with a condition and their loved ones band together to make the world a mentally healthier place through education, resources and support.
In the following conversation, Mackenzie discusses her trajectory, health hacks, feminism and the importance of taking time to learn the lessons that our experience – and failures – have to offer.
Where do you call home?
I grew up in Northern California and have just moved back after spending a year living in London to join the rest of the MiResource team at our company’s headquarters in San Francisco.
Tell us about your career path. What do you do? How did you start? What motivates you?
I am the CEO of MiResource and the Executive director and Chairwoman of TEAM but if you had asked me my freshman year of college if I would be running a company and a non-profit when I graduated I would have never believed you! Before going to Duke University, I modeled internationally for three years and thought maybe I wanted to work on the “business side of fashion” but I didn’t really know exactly what that entailed. I had no idea what I wanted to study. I actually thought I wanted to be a chemist for a period of time because I loved chemistry class. Thankfully I did an internship at a chemistry lab and quickly realized I didn’t want to be in a lab all day.
Someone gave me great advice when I got into Duke which was to just look through the course catalogue and pick classes I thought were interesting and not to worry about graduation requirements just yet. I took that advice and enrolled in a class called “Introduction to Terrorism” and I loved the class and the professor. So I ended up taking another course with the same professor but little to my knowledge it happened to be a graduate level class (oops!). So at that point I thought I might want to pursue a career in Counter Terrorism Strategy.
In October of my freshman year, my younger sister Shelby passed away from depression. I was so upset that we couldn’t find a way to save Shelby so I threw myself into learning everything I could about mental health and why our doctors were not able to find Shelby the right care.
Summer going into my sophomore year, after spending a lot of time thinking about what I could have done differently, I realized so many things I wish I could have gone back and told myself when Shelby started struggling two years previously. I wanted to create a way to tell other people what I had learned in the hope that they could be better supporters to their loved ones. That summer I founded TEAM (Teaching Everyone About Mental Health) to act as a pocket guide for supporters to learn how they can help a loved one struggling with their mental health. After launching TEAM, I realized that your roll as a supporter is really to help encourage your loved one get professional care but once you finally get to that step – finding the right care is really challenging. While running TEAM, I spent the next two years learning about what goes into making an accurate match between a person and a mental health professional. From there, in December 2016 I launched MiResource – an online platform to help people find the right care.
You are an avid horseback rider. What role do riding and horses play in your life?
Horseback riding has always been my rock. In the second grade I was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD so for many many years school was very challenging for me. From failing spelling tests to being bullied by others to humiliated by teachers in front of the class for making “careless” mistakes. Horses always kept me going because I knew that there was at least something I was good at. When my sister passed away in 2014, and later when my parents got divorced, it was horses that really saved me. No matter what was going on in my life I was so lucky to have the sport to give me confidence and something to drive towards.
In general, I’m lucky in that I love being active and outdoors and I’m also very competitive. Being active has always helped me think and unlock my creative thinking. Now I use it as a tool to help me problem solve. Whenever I am stuck with an idea, I will go for a hike or do something active. When I let my brain go, it eventually figures things out.
Juggling life as a model and entrepreneur must be very hectic, and you travel a lot. Do you have any other health hacks that you would care to share?
My two favorite performance products are my Muse Meditation headband and an Oura ring that tracks my sleep. I believe the key to performance is maximizing your mental health and some of the best ways to do that are having good sleep hygiene and a meditation/mindfulness program. My Oura ring has really helped me pay attention to my sleep hygiene and how certain behaviors affect my quality of sleep. The Muse Meditation headband is a bio feedback mechanism that reads my brainwaves and gives me real time feedback through sound to help guide my meditation session.
Do you have any rituals or routines that you adhere to in your various activities?
When I was competing in show jumping, every time I would walk into the ring to compete I would close my eyes and relive a memory of my sister Shelby giving me a big hug just before the timer started – if you watch a video of me riding you will always see that. I found this very grounding to help keep me in the moment and let go of any pressure I was feeling.
In terms of my routine, I have recently gotten into infrared saunas. I try to spend 15 mins in the sauna after workouts. While I am in the sauna I do grounding exercises which is a form of mindfulness which helps me stay more in the present and unwind from work mode.
Are there any health or wellness trends that have caught your attention?
I think people are starting to pay more attention to their mental health which is really exciting. We still have a long way to go as a society but I really think that we are starting to head in the right direction. I personally would like to challenge people to think of your mental health like your physical fitness. Once you get in shape, you don’t stop working out. The same thing applies with your mental health: Just because you might be mentally healthy doesn’t mean you stop doing things to support your mental health. I like to take it a step further and I work with a therapist weekly because I want to be in the best mental health I personally can be in.
Are there areas in the wellness sphere that you would like to see evolve?
I think it’s time we stop this “tough it out” mindset. When difficult events happen we shouldn’t just get on with our lives, you have to process the pain to be able to release it so you can open the next chapter of your life and thrive. Processing events is crucial for learning. Often times we need professional help to process and learn from tough situations. Research shows the greatest indicator of whether or not someone will be successful is “grit”. Grit isn’t obtained by people who have failed and just get up and keep going again and again and again. Grit is something you develop when you fail and learn how to overcome the challenge – by spending time with that pain and learning from your experiences.
What do you do to stay mentally healthy?
There is a combination of many things that work for me, both big and small. Priority number one is sleep. Sleep has such a huge impact on your mental health and overall performance in every way.
On a similar vein, I also have been working on my meditation practice, I meditate for 5 minutes every day with my Muse Headband which is a biofeedback guided meditation. When I really stick to meditating every day I notice a huge difference in the quality of my sleep, my energy and overall happiness.
From a diet side, there has been a lot of research linking your mental health with your gut flora so I have been taking pre and probiotics every day. I love Dr. Stephen Gundry’s PreBio Thrive. It tastes so good I actually crave it during the day now.
There are several small things I also do, such as try to make sure that my face is either relaxed or in a smile. Neuroscientists have shown that your face is a biofeedback mechanism for your brain – when you are squinting or furrowing your brow, it primes your brain for a stress response to whatever it is you are doing. Smiling has the opposite effect, it primes your brain for a positive response.
Lastly, whenever I am in a stressful situation or if something is upsetting me, I try to take a mental time-out and think of something that I am genuinely grateful for in the moment. No matter what is going on, there is always something to be grateful for, even if it is something as simple as “I love how soft my socks are.” This also primes our brains to notice the good things in our lives that we start to take for granted.
What can we do to help others live mentally healthier lives and reverse the stigma associated with mental illness?
Changing the stigma around mental illness starts with every one of us. We need to normalize talking about our mental health and what we do to be mentally healthy. Be open about asking people how they are doing emotionally and share with others what you are doing to maintain your mental health whether that is a meditation or mindfulness practice, taking 60 seconds to be deliberate about writing down what you are grateful for or prioritizing your sleep!
This doesn’t mean you have to walk around telling everyone your life story but there are ways you can encourage people to think about their own mental wellness. When someone asks you how you are, you can say something like “I am great, thanks. I meditated for 5 mins this morning and it felt so good.” If you need to leave the office during your lunch break to see a therapist, don’t be ashamed to say “I’m going to see my therapist” when people ask where you’re going.
Personally, I have found that as soon as you make it known that you are an emotional safe space there are so many people that will thank you for giving them the confidence to talk about their mental health with others. Statistically speaking everyone knows someone who has struggled whether that is themselves or a loved one. I think everyone has a story to tell and wants to talk about it – they just need the opportunity.
What are your thoughts on social media and community? Is it possible to really engage with people digitally or do you think it does more harm than good?
We live in a time that exists both physically and digitally. I have worked with so many people that I met via Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook and email. I even have people who work with me on TEAM and MiResource that have been heavily involved for years that I have never actually met in person but have spent hundreds of hours in total video conferencing with on Skype. One of my favorite examples of this is TEAM member, Madison MacGregor. Madison is a Canadian actress and mental health advocate who I met on instagram. We have never met in real life but Madison now runs Social Media for TEAM and is host of TEAM’s youtube channel and podcast, “Mind Time With Madison,” where she interviews different influencers and mental health professionals about their experience with mental health and ways that they live, and help others live, mentally healthier lives.
What does empowerment mean to you?
When someone says the word empowerment to me it means that you respect somebody and believe in them in a very humbling way.
Thoughts on feminism?
I think everyone should be a feminist. I think women can accomplish and thrive at anything they want and should be able to do that without facing any unnecessary barriers based on their gender.
I think In general women are harder on women because we expect higher performance of women than we do of men. So what we as women can do is be more supportive of our women peers and check in with ourselves if we are holding our fellow women a higher standard than we hold men to. If we want men to hold us at the same standard then we must hold each other at the same standard too.
I was lucky to be raised by parents that told me that I could do anything I wanted to and never even mentioned anything about me being a woman and that being tied to gender roles. When I was young I loved dressing up as a princess and for a year would only go somewhere if I was in a princess costume but at the same time if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would say I wanted to be an astronaut a fighter jet pilot or a firefighter.
As a female entrepreneur I am noticing the hardships that women face in business, particularly with older generations. But I’m actually lucky that it fuels me in a way. As a highly competitive person I take it on as a challenge because I know I can win.
What are your words to live by?
“Happiness is not a destination, it is the road traveled.” Accomplishing things is fun but you actually spend way more time working on accomplishing something than the hour of ecstatic happiness when you accomplish what you have been working for years to accomplish. But once the high wears off then the feeling of “now what?” sets in and you realize that your life is lived “working” on accomplishing something so you have to enjoy the process of whatever it is you’re working on.