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9 Perfect Strangers

by Staff GBAF Publications Ltd
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9 Perfect Strangers

As a practicing psychiatrist with a public health background from Johns Hopkins, I focused my career on large-scale mental health reform. My journey has brought me through psychiatric hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters, and vast communities across more than 10 states we service. I’ve been in the trenches of suicide, addiction, insomnia, panic, rage, isolation, and the growing prevalence of everyday anxiety and depression. This is the origin story of The Better Universe Foundation, inspired by 9 uniquely aligned individuals who are following a higher calling to improve mental health in our nation.

(Anyone mentioned within a patient-physician relationship has waived their HIPAA rights in order to share their story with the world and empower others to find strength in vulnerability.)

by Dr. Sam Zand

The brain is the wild west of medicine. It was once said the final frontier is not outer space, but our inner space. This exploration has been quite the journey over the last few years. The recent Covid lockdown shined a spotlight on the internal struggles we all go through in this human experience. It is clear that mental health is in dire need of improvement, and we’re feeling it societally more than ever. 

The pandemic was certainly bizarre, and it impacted all of humanity in some form. Local governments enforced curfew. We all started working behind Zoom screens (no longer needing to wear shoes or pants to work was a perk). Essential workers continued on to the hospitals, clinics, and grocery stores. Healthy outlets and social venues closed. Live entertainment ceased. Major leagues stopped playing sports unanimously, for the first time since World War II. While we all sat and watched Tiger King, a truly miraculous series of events was evolving in my life. 

Telemedicine had gained traction, and my telepsychiatry practice, Anywhere Clinic, was ready for the transition. We assembled a team of over thirty mental health practitioners across multiple states. We trained our team on holistic approaches to mental health care. We help assess and treat our patients biologically, psychologically, environmentally, and spiritually. We try to refrain from focusing on diagnostics or disorders and instead enhance self-exploration to find harmony and balance in places of tension. We listened to heartbreaking stories about loved ones who passed from Covid, personal health fears, job loss and financial insecurity, political division and social injustice, and the isolation from healthy societal engagement.

In May of 2020, I received a request for a consultation. Dr. Shana Alexander, the team psychologist for the San Francisco Giants, contacted me about a player who attempted suicide. She explained that while mental health and emotional fitness have always been a priority for the ball club, this was a crisis none could have prepared for.

Drew Robinson, a 28-year-old MLB veteran trying to win a spot on the San Francisco Giants, was experiencing the Covid shutdown like the rest of us. He lived a perceivably happy-go-lucky lifestyle. With a charming, jokester persona, none could see the weight of his internal discord. Feeling the pressures of performance while being called up and down from the majors to the minors, Drew experienced the trials of a rigorous professional baseball career. 

While his feat to make it this far would inspire anyone, high performers tend to push themselves to the extremes of self-criticism. After battling with years of career uncertainty, suppressed emotions, and spiraling self-hatred, Covid took away Drew’s healthiest outlet, baseball. He had called off his engagement and isolated himself from family and friends. On April 16, 2022, in his hometown of Las Vegas, Drew finished writing a suicide note to his family. Not too long later, he put a 9mm to his temple and pulled the trigger. The universe had other plans. 

I’ve had extensive experience working with suicidal patients and suicide survivors. An early tragedy helped shape my career. Fresh out of residency, I was on vacation with my family when I received this email:

Dr. Zand,

If you are receiving this email, I have taken my life on a beach in Southern California.  I plan to do this tomorrow morning, and this email is scheduled to reach you in 5 days unless I stop it.

When I saw you in early December and you asked if I was feeling better, I responded “yes”.  And I was.  The reason was that I had finally, definitively decided to end my life.  And I have not felt such peace for a very long time.

You have been fantastic and the medication regimens definitely helped me this past year.  But at the end of the day, it is a struggle.  I believe, based on family history, that it will always be a struggle.  My professional life has been affected profoundly and I am facing two serious spinal surgeries.  The combination is daunting.  And I have chosen a different path.

This is not a failure on your part and I send this email simply to thank you for your excellent advice and your kindness.  We each get to make our own choices in this life.  I have chosen mine.

You have a gift, doc.  Be well and prosper…

Comforting words held no consolation in my mind. I only met with this patient five times, but I immediately felt responsible. What did I overlook? What more could I have done? I transferred my angst to action and continued studying, learning, and loving the best I knew how. Given this background, one can understand my affinity for helping Drew.

Drew had fully survived the self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head. The bullet shattered his right orbital but caused no brain damage and left him 100% functional without one eye. Weekly psychotherapy with myself and Dr. Shana helped Drew to build the tools to heal and grow mentally and emotionally. Drew realized that his vulnerability and transparency were the catalysts for his growth and the key to his transformation. Being honest with others allowed him to be honest with himself. He lost his right eye but his vision became clearer. It wasn’t long before ESPN made a documentary highlighting Drew’s mental health journey. Drew was compelled to help others. 

Meanwhile, mental health was catching a wave in professional sports. Gabe Kapler, manager of the San Francisco Giants, had learned about Drew’s story early on. Being the naturally compassionate and caring leader he is, Kapler showed regular support and communication. It was evident Drew had a village behind him. What was less evident was the impact Drew had on the village. Kapler and Dr Shana created a mental skills department. They hired Drew as a mental health advocate, a role that has become popular in corporations and professional sports. 

I had the privilege of working with Dr. Shana and Gabe. Individual efforts to be our best selves, sharpen self-awareness, strengthen relationships, and overcome any mental or emotional blind spots. Kapler, already an emotionally intelligent and detail-oriented leader, stressed the importance of mental wellness in the locker room. The ripple effect felt serendipitous. The Giants won a record 107 games in 2021, drastically exceeding expectations. If sports serve as a learning tool for life, the nation heard the message loud and clear: strength isn’t always physical.

The message was reverberating within sports. Darren Waller, all-pro tight end for the Las Vegas Raiders, invited Drew onto his podcast, Comeback Stories. Darren is 5+ years recovering addict who almost overdosed before his professional career took off. Darren, like most, was moved by Drew’s story, and also shared the humbling weight of his self-inflicted near-death experience. Darren has used rehab, AA, recovery resources, psychotherapy, and alternative modalities to not only maintain his sobriety but become a leader and mentor on and off the field. 

My work with high performers inspired me to dive into the most cutting-edge solutions. I met frequently with a mentor, Dr. Johnathan Edwards, a world-renowned expert in peak performance and sports medicine. He works with professional athletes from Tour de France to the UFC, NFL, and Olympics. He taught me more about ketamine, a legally prescribed medication for mental health. There was a psychedelic medicine movement building during the pandemic. Innovators in the space we’re designing treatment protocols to unlock this psychedelic mind expansion tool for those with depression or anxiety, and the results were astonishing. 

The universe brought me to meet Derek Du Chesne, a socially conscious entrepreneur in the wellness space. We spent months in conversation considering how to bring psychedelic healing to the nation in a safe, effective, and affordable model. The goal was to bring autonomy back to our health, to allow the body and mind to heal themselves. Understanding that there was a stigma in psychedelic medicine as well as mental health in general, it became clear that education and awareness were pivotal in the acceptance of this paradigm shift.

We connected with Kathleen Gonzales, who spent her career in public relations. Like Derek, Kathleen had to cope through corporate burn out, and was convicted to use her resources in media to shed light on wellness and transformation. The puzzle pieces were coming together. If we’re going to change the way we prioritize our mental health, we must improve the nation’s mental nutrition away from toxic content and onto educational and inspiring messages.

Building the awareness effort was the first step. Others in the sports and entertainment world started to follow Drew’s lead. UFC spokesperson Arianny Celeste is an advocate for mental health and shared vulnerably how grief and loss can manifest as anger and depression if left unaddressed. Overcoming cultural stigmas and emotional barriers helped Ari find her peace and balance. Talk therapy, ketamine therapy, and regular self-care have all helped Ari thrive though adversity.

With a team of unique leaders, medical experts, influential voices, and brilliant minds, we constructed the core team of the Better Universe Foundation. While step one was an education campaign, the critical step two is filling the gaps for care when someone is ready but doesn’t know where to go. We created the Pay It Forward program, where in exchange for 3 acts of kindness in the community, patients can be seen for free by a volunteer clinician. We’ve recruited over one hundred pre-med student volunteers who help facilitate as care coordinators and accountability buddies. 

It’s going to take a village to provide the healing, growth, and love to transform the state of mental health in this nation. Thanks to this core group who are stepping up for those of us who need a little motivation and guidance. It’s okay to not be okay, and if we all work on being the best version of ourselves, that positive presence will reverberate through our communities. The work has just begun. We are recruiting industry leaders who prioritize mental wellness and can guide our collective consciousness toward self-healing, self-growth, self-love, and self-transcendence. A Better Universe begins with a Better U.