Young Philip Byron Brasington had a wonderful, dry sense of humor. An accomplished musician, he could play Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” on the organ by ear.
Phil was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19 while going through U.S. Army basic training.
The Brasington family debated about where to seek treatment for Phil. Around the time that his older brother, Richard D. “Rick” Brasington, MD, now professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, began medical school at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Phil was admitted to the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in the same city. The VA hospital was across the street from the medical campus, allowing Rick to visit Phil each day after class.
Sadly, Phil took his own life when he was 23. “We knew that Phil was going downhill when he sold his organ,” Rick says.
Phil’s death would not be the last painful loss for the Brasingtons.
Rick Brasington’s second son, James Philip Brasington, loved playing hockey and acting. An honors student, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the President’s Scholarship. He dealt with depression beginning in elementary school and later was diagnosed with a personality disorder. After suffering severe bouts of depression in college, he ended his life at age 20 by running his car into a tree.
Research has shown that many mental illnesses have a genetic component. “Severe mental illness has been a serious problem for young adults in the Brasington family,” says Rick, who also lost his father to suicide. “I want people to know that mental illness is just as deadly as cancer and heart disease, and victims are usually younger. I also want society to accept depression as a medical condition.”
To honor the memory of both Phil and James, Rick and his wife, Kathleen Ferrell, along with Rick’s sister, Rebecca “Becky” Brasington Clark, this year established the James and Philip Brasington Memorial Endowed Fund in the Department of Psychiatry.
A portion of the annual payout of the fund is used to award the James and Philip Brasington Memorial Prize. This prize annually recognizes a medical student who has demonstrated excellent preclinical and clinical academic performance in psychiatry and has the potential to make significant contributions to the field.
The balance of the annual payout will support educational programs in the psychiatry department, such as a lending library for residents and medical students, and trainee-selected lecturers.
Becky Brasington Clark of Baltimore, Md., says she wanted to help establish the prize because it helped her channel her grief into action. “This field has done so much to help my family, and I really want prospective psychiatrists to know how powerfully their work can improve lives,” she says. “The work is difficult, patients and families can be challenging, and you don’t see too many miracles. This award gives us a way to encourage promising physicians to embrace the challenges and move the field forward.”
Charles F. Zorumski, MD, the Samuel B. Guze Professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry, calls the Brasington family gift truly inspirational. “Richard, Becky and their families have turned tragedies into an ongoing source of hope,” he says. “Psychiatry is a field of disease management and incremental progress. Investing in medical students and medical education is one of the best things that can be done to promote the future of psychiatry.”
Rick has two other sons and a daughter. Ned is a second-year law student at the University of Iowa, William is an actor in Los Angeles, and Liz is a senior at Smith College. He says that losing his son James was as difficult as any parent could imagine. But he decided that it was necessary for him to accept this tragedy and find a way to go on with life.
“Mental illness is not a weakness; it’s an illness,” says Rick, who notes that many other members of his family have battled depression. “I want students who didn’t know Phil and James to realize that this disease killed these two young people that I loved. It also means a lot to me that their names will forever be memorialized in the Department of Psychiatry.”
In addition to helping the Brasington family heal, this award serendipitously redeemed Becky’s birthday after 32 years; Phil Brasington died on May 3, his sister’s birthday. The first James and Philip Brasington Memorial Prize was given May 4. Becky says the award transforms spring from a time of painful anniversaries into a season of purpose and optimism.
“That the first award was presented the day after my 50th birthday gave me a profound sense of joy,” she says. “It reminded me that the best way to fight grief is to get busy and do something.”