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Hope Wins

Gift in memory of Bette Rathjen promotes mental health awareness in at-risk youth

Spending holidays with her family was always important to Elizabeth “Bette” Rathjen. She reveled in the seasonal rituals, celebrating Thanksgiving in the country, decorating cookies at Christmas, and heading to the mountains to ski over winter break.

Ms. Bette Rathjen’s grandmother added to the litany of Yuletide traditions, inviting her granddaughter to see “The Nutcracker” at age 4 and igniting a lifelong passion for dance. The aspiring young ballerina attended the prestigious Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. But her dreams were cut short by a dance-related injury, and she quickly descended into depression – one of many such episodes that haunted her youth. After high school, she continued to wrestle with chronic emotional pain. During her sophomore year at Southern Methodist University, she took her life. She was 21.

Elizabeth “Bette” Rathjen
Elizabeth “Bette” Rathjen

Inspired by Ms. Bette Rathjen’s life, her family established The Bette Rathjen Foundation for Emotional Health to address the challenges of teen depression and suicide. Focused on the ways society and medicine support emotional health, the Foundation made a generous gift to UTSW’s Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care (CDRC) and its Resilience Academy. Ms. Bette Rathjen’s parents, Carolyn Perot Rathjen and Karl Rathjen, M.D., who serve as the Foundation’s directors, hope their gift will break new ground in depression research and help adolescent children struggling with depression.

The Foundation’s gift supports:

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Training adult facilitators to deliver the Youth Aware of Mental Health program in middle schools and high schools. The international curriculum has been linked with significantly improved mental health outcomes for adolescents.

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Deploying the Center’s innovative software application to help at-risk students identify and self-monitor symptoms of mood disorders and report outcomes.

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Engaging in ongoing community outreach, reducing stigma on a large scale through depression prevention and resilience education.

“Bette’s story sheds light on the fact that severe emotional health differences are very complicated diseases of the brain and as life-threatening as cancer and heart disease. We hope to do our part to reduce the stigma around emotional health differences and encourage parents to seek help as early as possible,” said Dr. Rathjen, who is also a Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at UT Southwestern, Assistant Chief of Staff at Scottish Rite for Children, and President of the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children Foundation.

For the Rathjen family, supporting the work of the Center’s Director, Madhukar Trivedi, M.D., created an opportunity to help other parents address the negative physical, emotional, and social outcomes caused by depression.

Bette Rathjen, center, with her parents leaning in to kiss her face on each side, Karl Rathjen, M.D., left, and Carolyn Perot Rathjen
Bette Rathjen, center, with her parents, Karl Rathjen, M.D., left, and Carolyn Perot Rathjen

“Science is in the earliest stages of understanding brain disease, including emotional health,” Mrs. Carolyn Rathjen said. “Bette had very complicated brain disease, and the science is not far enough along to help the sickest patients. However, great strides have been made in helping patients with milder disease. The research of Dr. Trivedi’s team at UT Southwestern has proved scientifically that early intervention is crucial. Our gift to support the CDRC Resilience Academy will take that work further to gather more data and locate at-risk patients.”

The Resilience Academy will continue to follow adolescents and young adults through high school and into college as part of the Texas Resilience Against Depression program. Begun in 2016, the multiyear effort consists of two research studies looking for patterns in the biological characteristics of individuals who experience depression and those who bounce back more easily from challenges. To date, more than 1,400 adolescents and young adults have participated.

“Dance was like oxygen for Bette. When she danced, we saw her at her happiest.”

“Depression is a brain disease to which we have not paid enough attention,” said Dr. Trivedi, who is also a Professor of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern. “There’s a profound amount of stigma and lack of knowledge about it. The more we can study it, the more mood disorders will be recognized and accepted. The Foundation’s generous gift ensures the sustainability of these ambitious studies to make depression more objective and scientific and moves us closer to realizing a future in which depression and other mood disorders are more widely understood.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

Dr. Trivedi holds the Betty Jo Hay Distinguished Chair in Mental Health and the Julie K. Hersh Chair for Depression Research and Clinical Care.

Remembering Bette

Like any proud father, the moment Dr. Rathjen met his daughter was love at first sight.

“From the moment of her birth, we treasured the gift of such a special baby girl,” he said.

Diagnosed with depression from an early age, the Rathjens’ daughter began treatment around age 4 and started taking medication at age 8. Throughout her childhood, she benefited from therapy, participating in residential and wilderness treatments, the latter a form of treatment that combines outdoor experiences with therapy. Medical treatments, such as taking the drug ketamine and electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, also helped alleviate her symptoms.

Nothing was as effective at lifting her spirits as dance. A gifted dancer, she never forgot the experience of seeing Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous ballet for the first time.

“Dance was like oxygen for Bette. When she danced, we saw her at her happiest,” Mrs. Rathjen said.

The Rathjens witnessed how 13 years of treatment weighed on their daughter, a serious student. After high school, college brought the promise of a new beginning as she chose a psychology major and embraced an extended family of Tri Delta sorority sisters.

“Bette was empathetic and understood the isolation of her invisible disease,” Dr. Rathjen said. “She hoped to make a career of advocating for others with the same struggles.”

For the Rathjens, their daughter’s care often felt all-consuming. There were frightening moments of deep pain, but there were also happy times when treatment helped and created space for joyful memories. Her parents cherished each day they had together as a family and the opportunities they had to advocate and care for their daughter.

“We live each day with deep gratitude for Bette’s life,” Mrs. Carolyn Rathjen said. “She is at peace and left this world knowing she was deeply loved. She brought us closer together as a family and strengthened our faith. We feel her love all around. Hope wins.”