Credit: Courtesy of Instagram

The family of Lee MacMillan, a social media star who took her own life on March 26, 2021, donated $30,000 to the Mental Wellness Center of Santa Barbara, to be put toward mental-health programs aimed at advocating for young people. 

MacMillan died after being struck by a train on a section of the tracks near State and Hollister Road in Noleta. She had been open about her struggles with depression, speaking candidly on her social media accounts about seeking help and support. 

MacMillan was most well-known for her “van life” travel lifestyle, and many also knew her through the joint Instagram account she shared with her then-boyfriend, Max Bidstrup, dubbed @MaxandLee, which chronicled the couple’s adventures with their dog, Occy. Prior to her death, MacMillan had been on the receiving end of online harassment and cyberbullying. Much of the online harassment came after her relationship with Bidstrup ended. “Life is more complex than a single social media post,” read the statement announcing MacMillan’s death on the Instagram account @SpeakUpForLee. “Things are complicated. Don’t believe what you see online. Get out into the world and talk to your loved ones.”

Annmarie Cameron, CEO of the Mental Wellness Center of Santa Barbara, said many young people who participate in the youth advocacy programs were moved by MacMillan’s death and her struggles with being an online presence. “People are vulnerable online,” Cameron said. “Especially young women who try to portray positivity and perfection.”

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The $30,000 donated by the MacMillan family will mostly go toward two youth programs run out of the center, Cameron said, including Mental Health Matters, a program that aims to introduce basic facts and vocabulary about mental health to students from 6th to 9th grade; and The Wellness Connections Council, a high school leadership program that engages students on the impacts of mental health and encourages students to reach out and connect with others. 

The center reached out to the family after MacMillan’s death, Cameron said, and the family expressed a desire to take the tragedy and turn it into something positive, including through donating to organizations that educate and support those suffering from mental illnesses. “Talking openly about these things gives people an opportunity to say, ‘That happens to me too,’” Cameron said. 

Dawson Kelly has participated in both Mental Health Matters and the Wellness Connection Council and also serves as the student representative on the Santa Barbara School Board. Kelly said participating in these groups has broadened his understanding of emotions and helped him gain more empathy for others. “Fear comes from me not understanding why people are the way they are,” Kelly said. “[The programs] have helped me reduce ‘unknown fear.’”

Kelly said since he began attending the Wellness Council in his freshman year, the council has averaged an attendance rate of about 20-30 students for each meeting. Now as a junior at San Marcos, he said he’s noticed a “shift in the conversation” surrounding mental health. “I saw how important it is to be educated on this,” Kelly said. “We need mandatory mental health education in schools.”

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