Editor's note: Mental health resources for UR students include CAPS, at CAPS@richmond.edu or 804.289.8119; The CAPS warmline at 240.219.6060; the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255.
Contributor Sana Mouayd Azem talks about the impact of Augustus Lee's death with his family and friends and discusses the fund they started to mentor low-income students.
Hosted and produced by Azem.
PHYLLIS LEE: He has friends in this neighborhood that he's known since they were babies. they would come home from school and they would go out and play. They would play in the yard, they would play in the woods, they would play in the creeks. He was a great athlete from a young age. He loves sports and he played on a lot of teams, you know, different sports, they started out with soccer. He played a little bit of T-ball, and a little bit of football and then lacrosse. He also did summer-time swim team and all the activities that that entailed.
Otherwise, he was just, you know, a regular kid. He liked to watch movies. He liked video games. He had a period where he loved skateboarding. He was really into paintball for a while, and they always wanted to go paintballing. So, you know, that was just like a regular normal childhood. He was always appreciative; he always thanked me. His coaches were always really good at reminding the kids, your parents do so much to allow you to do this, make sure you thank them. And he was very appreciative. He never took it for granted.
SANA MOUAYD AZEM: Augustus “Gus” Lee was a second-year student at the University of Richmond, a defensive back on his university’s football team, and above all, he was a son, a brother and a friend. Gus’s friends and family recall the moments with Gus, carrying them wherever they go. His mother Phyllis Lee keeps the memories she has of her son alive and shares them with those around her.
LEE: That was a nice gift, that we had so much time together with him and his teammates. You know, we would carpool. So I would have a car full of stinky boys telling funny jokes and wanting to listen to their music, which I hated. We always argued about the music, because their music was inappropriate and hideous. And they didn’t like my music either. So it was always a battle about the music.
AZEM: Inches of snow had covered the city of Richmond on the night of December 9 in 2018. Most students at the University of Richmond were indoors, studying for their final exams. On that cold, dull night a tragedy took place. Gus Lee took his life away.
It wasn’t until December 11 that his suicide was discovered.
One of Gus’s close friends in high school, Callie Redmond, recalls the day she was informed of Gus’s death.
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CALLIE REDMOND: I remember it was right in the middle of finals. My friend had texted me saying she needed to give me a call. And she just said, ‘Gus killed himself.’ I was very confused. Like I said, I had just seen Gus, just literally a matter of weeks prior, and hadn't really noticed anything.
LEE: When Gus died, we were absolutely shocked. We were just, you know, stunned. I remember thinking, why would he do this? What would make him do this? Something made him think that this was what he needed to do. But what could that possibly be?
I just remember thinking, you know, his brain was working against him in telling him that this was the thing to do.
AZEM: After sleepless nights, Gus’s family decided to donate his brain to the Veterans Administration-Boston University- Concussion Legacy Foundation. In doing so, the family hoped to find answers. Ms. Lee said she thought Gus might have been struggling from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progression of degenerative brain disease that is found in many athletes.
Gus’s family received the results of Gus’s brain injuries examination on January 27 in 2020.
LEE: In Gus’s, his case, they told us that he did not have CTE. But his brain exhibited molecular and structural changes that precede CTE. That is an indicator that he had a history of brain trauma, which we knew.
AZEM: Gus’s history of brain trauma wasn’t a surprise to his family. He had suffered several high-impact collisions throughout his athletic career, the first being a diagnosed concussion from a collision during a middle school lacrosse game in 2013.
After Gus’s death, the University of Richmond’s Athletics Department, in conjunction with Counseling and Psychological Services, hired its first-ever athletic psychologist, Dr. Rachel Turk, who focuses solely on student-athletes.
As a sports psychologist, how does the mental health stigma play a role in the sports world, especially for athletes?
RACHEL TURK: I think just like everyone, there's always a stigma that everybody experiences is still consistent throughout our student-athletes. But there's an even higher stigma for folks in the athletics world because of the culture of athletics. I mean, if you just think about the training that these athletes have gone through their entire life. To be told, you know, ‘push through things,’ ‘you gotta be tough,’ you got to, you know, work through things and be independent and be self-reliant, you gotta figure it out on your own.
LEE: There's something about athletes and mental health struggles. And maybe it's because athletes, you know, from a young age are taught to suck it up, and to get up and to keep going. And if you're an injured player, you're no help to your team or your coach. So you need to go and get better, you know, heal your injury, and then come back when you can help be a participating member of this team and contribute to the success of this team. So no athlete is going to admit to their mental health woes, because they always need to be a 100% contributing member of a team.
AZEM: Gus’s death changed the lives of many around him. It has become their priority to raise awareness about mental health and the stigma that comes with it. Callie became a suicide prevention call operator at UVA, where she studied.
REDMOND: After Gus's death, to me, going back to UVA just felt incredibly overwhelming. And so, I started just looking up what organizations at UVA I could get involved in that had to do with mental health. And that's how I came across the Helpline. I signed up for training. And I felt like as I went through training, I started to get a better understanding of mental health and more specifically, just what Gus might have been feeling, what might have driven him to that point that he reached.
LEE: The mental health care world is really difficult to navigate. These crisis lines, I think, can be very helpful. Those people are trained very thoroughly. They know what to ask; they know how to get people to share things, which indicate the level of emergency.
AZEM: The memory of Gus remains in the hearts of many. In honor of Gus, Ms. Lee and her family decided to create a scholarship foundation called, The Gus Lee Fund, to help a deserving student with college tuition, mentorship, career advice and enrichment programs.
LEE: My husband and I, you know, talked about what we are going to do to honor Gus’s legacy and his memory. And he was always a very sensitive kid. He didn't like to see other people who were suffering or didn't have it as good as he did.
Our family is going to have a foundation called, The Gus Lee Fund. And we are going to have kids apply for scholarship for children whose families can't afford four-year college.
LEE: It's very hard to believe that it's been three years, I like having to count on my fingers. Because it was so unbelievable for me that it's already been three years. Grief is a really difficult thing. Some days are just as bad as day one. Some days are a lot better.
Lots of people don't talk about Gus because they're afraid they're going to upset me or upset the family. You know, Gus’s loss is with me every day. It's a big hole in my heart, but talking about him brings it back to life a little bit.
AZEM: Today, and every day, we remember those who died by suicide. If you are listening to this and dealing with depression, know that you are not alone. If you are having thoughts about suicide, try calling a loved one. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Contact contributor Sana Mouayd Azem at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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