In many ways, Stacy Hollingsworth was an exceptional teenager – an energetic young woman with talent in academics, sports, music and acting. Always smiling, she appeared – on the outside – to have it all.
But on the inside, Stacy was suffering in ways that no one – not her parents, friends or teachers – ever knew.
“It was the kind of pain where I literally wanted to curl up into a ball and fade away, or scream at the top of my lungs,” she recalls. “It felt like being a prisoner of war – your own war.”
For six years – despite her success in academics, sports and acting – Stacy silently battled depression. At its worst, the illness paralyzed her with feelings of hopelessness, and caused her to spend hours crying in her bedroom.
It began around the age of 14, when Stacy (now 25) remembers losing interest in the activities she once loved, and having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.
“It was like being tortured by your own brain,” she says.
The summer before her freshman year of high school, Stacy says she started to contemplate taking her own life.
“It wasn’t ‘I want to die.’ It was, ‘I can’t take this anymore,’ ” she says. “It was so excruciating to deal with the symptoms of the depression and the pain, there was this feeling that I can’t do this anymore – I don’t know how long I can last.”
When asked why she didn’t share her suffering with anyone, Stacy says it was mostly the stigma.
“I’d seen the way people with mental health issues were treated, and I didn’t want that to be me,” she says, adding that she was also afraid her illness might affect her acceptance to college, or her plans to go to medical school.
And why not share her struggle with her parents? “I didn’t want to burden them,” says Stacy, an only child.
Her mother, Sharon Hollingsworth, says she never noticed any warning signs of Stacy’s illness beneath her smiles and successes – an experience she uses to caution other parents of teens.
“I think parents think they know everything about their children, and I think in a lot of cases they do,” she says. “But I think there’s also a disconnect between children and parents…dealing with something like depression. I think that there are still things kids are hiding in almost every case.”
Even with her depression, Stacy managed to finish high school in the top of her class, and was accepted to Rutgers University in her home state of New Jersey. But once she got to college, Stacy’s depression, and suicidal impulses, worsened.
One night, after counting out enough prescription medication to commit suicide, she sought help at the campus psychiatric hospital.
“I needed to do something to save my life,” she says. “I had to do something, or I was going to die.”
That hospital stay marked a turning point for Stacy. With the support of her parents, she temporarily withdrew from Rutgers, sought help from a therapist, and eventually found a medication to effectively manage her depression. Stacy also found comfort, and encouragement, in an online community of people suffering with mental illness.
Last spring, Stacy graduated from Rutgers and landed a job with the National Alliance of Mental Illness in New Jersey, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people who have been affected by mental health issues through advocacy, resources and education. She also founded NAMI-Rutgers, which works solely on campus.
“I think after having gone through my own life-changing experience with mental illness, I feel like I really have a second chance at life,” says Stacy. “It’s amazing to be alive and I want to take however much time I have left to put it to good use.”
For Stacy’s work, Mental Health America presented her with one of six outstanding young advocate awards in 2007 for her efforts to raise awareness of mental health issues among America’s youth, and addressing the issue of stigma.
When asked if she has any words for teens experiencing depression or thoughts of suicide, she says: “First, realize you are not alone – that is so important…Also, come to terms with it and accept yourself. Then, you have to say ‘who do I feel comfortable going to?’ And if there’s not…find someone who can play a role in your recovery.”
Stacy adds: “For the longest time, I never thought I’d be one of the ones who would get better. When I finally did, it surprised me, and it gave me hope…hope is possible.”
For more on Stacy’s story, see her video for MTV’s Half of Us campaign online.
For more on the National Alliance on Mental Illness, log onto NAMI’s Web site.