By Cynthia Martin
I’ve been HELLA happy today
And I was trying to figure out why
Like figure out what was different today vs any other day
And the only thing that makes sense is that I talked to you
We need to talk more 💜”
Mckenna Grace Martin, Wednesday, March 28, 2018, 6:31 pm, PST
This is one of the last texts my daughter sent to her best friend, Anna Courtney, just six days before the unthinkable.
Mckenna was 19 and full of life, vacillating between the excitement of living out her literal dreams as a sophomore at the University of Southern California, and frustration with the sadness, anxiety, and migraines that frequently dampened it. She was a young woman admired by peers and adults alike, a National Merit Scholar in the top Writing for Screen and Television program in the country, and a professional actress. A brilliant writer, her work had garnered multiple awards, student Emmys, and screenings in prominent film festivals across the country. She was exceptionally high-functioning and had already accomplished more than many do in a lifetime.
Mckenna was also a beloved USC Resident Assistant who nurtured her girls and often left her dorm door open wide, welcoming anyone who might need an objective, encouraging, or sympathetic ear. She poured her heart into people and everything she did and was a role model and mentor to many, pushing others to dream big and pursue their passions. She loved freely and found joy in others’ perspectives, goals, projects, life stories, and feelings. To all appearances, Mckenna was successful and smart, and a student who revelled in the success of her peers as much as her own.
As beautiful as Mckenna’s heart was, she was also physically beautiful and modeled for one of the top agencies in Los Angeles; but when meeting her for the first time, most were surprised to find she was humble and that she easily and authentically connected to others with compassion and acceptance. A big thinker who felt deeply, she was all these things and many more. Even though she was strong, giving, happy and accomplished, like many highly creatives, she struggled with the ups and downs of her emotions and mental wellbeing. Many mental health disorders begin in the late teens, and this was the case for Mckenna who began experiencing bouts of increased anxiety and depression when she started college in the fall of 2017.
Looking through the USC website, it appeared that getting appropriate mental health care would be simple and efficient as Keck school of medicine and a counseling center were right on campus. But when Mckenna called for an appointment, she was told she would have to first schedule a 20-minute phone assessment to determine if she needed treatment. I found this stunning because what 18-year-old voluntarily seeks psychiatric care and doesn’t need it? For those who are interested, I will write in more detail about how all this unfolded in the blog, but for brevity’s sake, at the end of this 20 minute phone consult Mckenna was deemed too healthy to receive the very limited mental health services USC offered and instead given a list of professionals to research and contact on her own in the Los Angeles area.
Fast forward to mid-March of 2018. Although Mckenna was doing well academically and excitedly finishing two screenplays, one ironically about brain hormones, her behavior and emotions were more erratic than usual. She was experiencing mood fluctuations and said she didn’t feel her new medication was working as it should. But she assured me she was safe and denied having any thoughts of harming herself, and promised to contact her doctor as soon as possible. Just to be sure, I had her tell me what she would do should she decompensate; she said she would call me or someone else she trusted seeking help immediately. She also stressed to me that she would never act on a suicidal feeling.
Unfortunately, Mckenna’s mental state deteriorated very rapidly the night of April 3, 2018, and she, accidentally we believe, took her own life. As we tried to reconstruct what happened to our beloved and only child, we were astonished and disheartened by the lack of suicide awareness among the adults and students in and around her life at USC. In addition to the sparse and difficult to obtain psychiatric services available at USC, we also identified problems in the way the school responds to mental health crises and have endeavored to improve the way students may receive trusted and confidential help in such an emergency.
Our family wants to do everything we can to ensure that no other college student goes without the mental health care they need and that no other family is forced to experience the unimaginable pain that we have in losing our precious daughter. It has been a profound struggle to go through this loss for our entire family and friends. We have moved forward by staying true to Mckenna’s loving spirit and launched Mckenna’s Grace to help college students find connection and assistance in an accepting, supportive environment.
And who knows? Maybe this movement could establish its voice at colleges and universities across the country. From one of Mckenna’s favorite movies, “We don’t even know what it is yet. We don’t know what it is.”
Much love – Cynthia