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Student living with mental illness after sister’s death
Alex Magrath was at his girlfriend’s house on the night of Feb. 25, 2008. Seven years later, he continues to relive that night.
His parents and two rabbis arrived unannounced. They told Magrath that his sister Dora Magrath had committed suicide. She was 22 and had been battling mental illnesses for years.
“In some ways in my sister’s death … she kind of saved my life. I saw, and felt, and knew what it does to people,” Magrath said.
Magrath said his sister wrote in her suicide note she didn’t want to be a burden on people. He said if she could have seen nearly a thousand people at her funeral, she would have thought differently.
Magrath was facing his own mental health demons.
“I was still a mess and still in denial (about mental health diagnoses) and that coupled with losing my sister was really tough,” Magrath said. “And tough is an understatement. Now it’s tough, and I think tough is still an understatement.”
Magrath recognizes staying alive hasn’t been easy though.
Magrath, a junior at Webster University, is working toward graduating from college – 10 years after his graduation from University City High School. He has faced his own struggles with mental illness. His diagnosis is bipolar disorder. The disease has put him into the hospital more times than he can count.
Despite that, Magrath continues doing what he loves to do. He writes and plays his music.
But his life hasn’t always been a struggle for him.
At University City High, he was a high-achieving student and one of the top tennis players in Missouri. He played No. 1 singles for the Lions. In doubles, Magrath finished fourth in the state in both his junior and senior years.
“At the time I was thinking about the possibility of going pro, or at least playing in college,” he said.
Therapy in Music
Not only was Magrath successful athletically, he expressed creativity through music and poetry. Writing and poetry first became something of serious value to Magrath in his Honors AP Literature class junior year. His passion for music increased at the same time.
“I tried out for the choir that year. In my first year of choir I ended up getting a ‘one’ at districts and a ‘one’ at state, which is the highest you can get,” Magrath said. “That was when I realized, at least vocally, that there was something there.”
Magrath’s mother and long time Webster communications professor, Linda Holtzman, always had an idea that music could be something in Magrath’s future. Music played a key role in their family.
“Music has always been important (to him),” Holtzman said. “While we were cleaning the house, we would listen to Marvin Gaye. While traveling, we would listen to music, so from an early point in Alex’s life, it was something important.”
Magrath learned how to play the guitar the summer after his senior year. It has been an essential part of his life ever since. But it has evolved over time. It plays a much different role now. He uses music as a type of therapy to help with his mental illness. Writing lyrics and songs helps him “get things out, and feel good about them.”
He has recorded two albums, titled “Fly Away” and “Tao of the Blues,” and is working on a third entitled “Enigmatic Soul.”
“My niche has been soul, folk, blues, but I’m trying to break out of that a little bit,” Magrath said.
Magrath has his sister’s name in Hebrew tattooed on his left forearm. It is clearly visible when he plays guitar.
The Original Diagnosis
Magrath graduated as one of the top 20 students of his high school class and left for Bard College in New York with a full-ride scholarship. Magrath was able to achieve a 3.0 GPA his first semester at Bard, despite the troubles he began to face.
“Everything seemed good, but at the time I was having delusions of grandeur,” Magrath said. Magrath only lasted one semester at Bard, before withdrawing from school with a medical leave of absence. It was at Bard where a counselor first told him that he should probably be medicated for mental illness issues he was facing. He was originally diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a disorder that causes delusions and depression. Magrath didn’t really take the news well.
“I was like, ‘What the (expletive) are you talking about,” Magrath said.
Magrath decided to transfer back to a school he knew very well, Webster, where his mother had been a professor for nearly 20 years. She retired in 2013 after 26 years at Webster.
Starting at Webster
Magrath was able to play tennis again, and continued his success on the court. He was named the 2006 Saint Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) newcomer of the year, and finished third in the conference in No. 1 singles. But coming home has not made it any easier for Magrath. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and was first hospitalized with symptoms of it in 2007. The new diagnoses has been a bit of a weight off his mind, but it didn’t make his life any simpler.
“I would say that in a lot of ways now there’s relief,” Magrath said. “I know what’s going on with me, but the ups and downs take a lot of energy out of me.”
Holtzman echoed the same sentiment.
“It has been a 10-year process to finally find the right diagnoses and the right team of people to help him out,” Holtzman said. “But there was some relief to know that there were people in Saint Louis that would care for Alex’s well-being as a person.”
Magrath doesn’t shy away from talking about his sister, or his diagnoses of bipolar disorder. He finds it necessary for people to be educated on an issue that is so widespread across college campuses. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “more than 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition” in the year 2012.
Magrath faces discrimination because of his mental illness. He said a lot of the times it is because of a lack of knowledge about the issue.
“The stigma is difficult to deal with. It’s something we need to talk about,” Magrath said. “It’s interesting. When people have cancer, they don’t say, ‘I am cancer.’ But people do say, ‘I am bipolar.’”
Holtzman believes that discrimination towards those with mental illnesses is very much real, but sometimes the discrimination might not be on purpose.
“In a lot of cases students with mental illnesses need more attention from the professor, but they [the professor] either aren’t aware of the situation or they don’t know how to handle it,” Holtzman said.
Holtzman believes coming up with a way to properly handle and accommodate students is difficult for any university. She saw first-hand because of her children’s mental illnesses, and having students in the past with disabilities.
“It’s difficult to have a general plan because there are so many different mental illnesses and they might affect each person differently,” Holtzman said.
Now, attending Webster again, Magrath is working towards graduation. He rekindled his passion for tennis once again, and joined the Webster team. He was 2-0 in doubles play this season. But Magrath had to make a tough decision in late March. He quit the tennis team.
“Sometimes on my ‘highs’ I put too much on my plate, and I kind of lost sight of my health somewhere this semester,” Magrath said. “It was really, really tough. It was hard especially since I probably won’t play again.”
It has been almost 10 years since Magrath’s diagnosis. And it has been seven since his sister’s death. But time has not had it any easier.
“It’s been a long process. It’s been hard, and it’s still hard,” Magrath said. “I’m just grateful that overall I’m doing a lot better. I couldn’t have done this five years ago. There’s no way. No way.”