Young Rider Champions Mental-Health Issues

College student and equestrian Mackenzie Drazan has launched two organizations to serve as resources for those struggling with mental-health issues.
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Mackenzie Drazan and Waliba VDL

Mackenzie Drazan and Waliba VDL

One in four people suffers from a mental-health issue, hence, statistically, virtually everybody knows someone who is struggling. So it’s everybody that young amateur jumper rider Mackenzie Drazan is out to help with TEAM, an online resource dedicated to Teaching Everybody About Mental Health.

The California equestrian and Duke University senior got her inspiration in the hardest possible way: losing her younger sister Shelby to depression in the fall of 2014 when she took her own life. Shelby was a rider who was as admired for her horsemanship and riding abilities as for her kindness and determination to help others. Along with coping with depression, anxiety and anorexia, she studied each condition and brain function in general.

“Shelby was determined to help others,” says Mackenzie, 22. “She didn’t want others to feel the pain she was going through and wanted to make a huge impact on people’s lives.” She lives on in the work Mackenzie started and continues through TEAM and a newer endeavor called MiResource.

“Mental illness is difficult to comprehend when you have no prior experience,” Mackenzie explains. “My family was scrambling trying to know how to help and be supportive. It wasn’t until after Shelby passed away that I could make more sense of the whole whirlwind.” In the aftermath, Mackenzie learned there was ample information online, but it was hard to find, absorb and apply.

The website myteam.org collects, creates and organizes general and how-to-help information and makes it accessible for those seeking to help a family member or friend. Every condition varies as much as the people it affects, but there are common denominators. “A tricky thing about mental illness is that we are not taught the difference between sadness and depression,” Mackenzie notes. “If you feel sad and lonely for an extended period of time, that’s not normal. You can feel better.”

Whatever the circumstances, “Your role as a family member or friend is to be there but realize that you can’t fix your friend yourself. What’s important is to guide them to get professional help.”

Getting the right help is as important as recognizing the need for it. That’s what MiResource (www.miresource.com) focuses on. Currently in use by three university counseling centers, this growing database gathers information from mental-health providers and simplifies the process of finding a suitable provider for patients, who can access the program for free. “There is so much information you need to learn and at a time when you are already stressed out,” Mackenzie explains. “MiResource puts it in layman’s terms and walks you through the process.”

Frequently the horse’s body and brain get more attention than the rider’s. “People tend to ignore potential mood disorders and think they can power through it. We don’t treat physical injuries this way. You wouldn’t expect someone with a broken leg to be able to will their bones to heal. We have to stop doing this with our mental health,” Mackenzie observes. “We all sustain emotional injuries and if we don’t treat them, they build up and become much bigger problems,” she adds.

TEAM and MiResource are designed to help individuals, especially adolescents and young adults. Mackenzie hopes they will also raise public consciousness about mental health and make it easier to talk about.

Her own mental-health routines include getting plenty of sleep, doing guided meditation using a Muse headband that provides biofeedback and making daily to-do lists so she can focus on one activity without worrying that she’ll forget something.

During her time in college, Mackenzie has juggled academics, TEAM and MiResource with competing in the U25 Developing Rider ranks. Mackenzie finished ninth in the U25 National Finals in Lexington, Kentucky, and she was eighth in the Interactive Mortgage U25 Finals in Las Vegas, both last November.

“Horses are my deepest passion,” says Mackenzie, who hopes to continue riding after graduating college this spring with a degree in political science and a certificate in entrepreneurial innovation. In Shelby’s honor, TEAM and MiResource are Mackenzie’s equal passions and highest priorities. 

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.