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After her sister's death, new insights about depression for Stacy L. Sweeney

SweeneyA chance conversation leads to service and philanthropy

A routine flight in 2004 became much more for Stacy L. Sweeney. A resident of Boston’s Back Bay, Sweeney, 46, has spent her career in higher education, most recently as president of the New England Institute of Art and group vice president for the Art Institutes. “I was on my way home to Boston and got into a conversation with the gentleman next to me, Dr. Maurizio Fava,” she recalls.

“I learned that he is a psychiatrist who heads the Depression Clinical and Research Program (DCRP) at Mass General.” This prompted Sweeney to begin talking about her sister, Susan Sweeney, who had died three months earlier at the age of 40 from causes related to depression.

“Her illness and death were very painful for me,” says Sweeney. “We had been very close, and for years my family and I felt so helpless as her condition worsened. There was so much grief, and at times even anger. I always feared that one day I’d get a phone call that she had died, and sadly the call came, a few days after a Thanksgiving dinner that she didn’t show up for. After her death, I struggled with what we might have done differently.”

New insights about depression
Sweeney’s serendipitous conversation with Fava re-shaped her understanding of her sister’s death. “I remember Dr. Fava turning toward me and asking questions about my sister and family. He told me that sometimes even the best psychiatrists can’t always help. His words and compassion shed a whole new light on my sister’s illness. He helped me realize that we didn’t need to blame ourselves for what happened.”

By the end of the flight, Fava invited Sweeney to become a member of the newly forming DCRP Advisory Council. “He said he was looking for members who want to make a difference, and I was delighted to accept,” says Sweeney. “I have been a member ever since.”

As an Advisory Council member, Sweeney became active immediately, helping organize two art galas to benefit the DCRP and Department of Psychiatry. She publicized the events at the Institute of Art and several artists on the faculty offered to donate their artwork. “Many faculty and staff approached me, wanting to share stories of depression in their families,” says Sweeney. Using the knowledge she gained at Mass General, Sweeney encouraged the institute’s mental health counselors to attend Mass General workshops and to help faculty members recognize signs of depression among students and refer students to counseling.

Supporting treatment

“I made the decision to give in order to support the passion and compassion of these amazing clinicians and researchers … So much of what is going on in depression treatment around the world comes from the work of the DCRP and MGH Psychiatry Department.” — Stacy L. Sweeney

Sweeney also became a donor to the Department of Psychiatry. “I made the decision to give in order to support the passion and compassion of these amazing clinicians and researchers,” she says. “I know from my work in higher education how difficult it is to assemble a team and keep talented people in the face of funding cutbacks, and the Department of Psychiatry has done that. As a college president I have seen the effects of depression and suicide among students and appreciate the work being done at Mass General. So much of what is going on in depression treatment around the world comes from the work of the DCRP and MGH Psychiatry Department.”

< “Stacy Sweeney has been an extraordinarily loyal, stalwart, productive member of the DCRP Council,” says Maurizio Fava, MD, executive vice chair of the department and director of the DCRP. “While meeting Stacy on a plane was unique in terms of her readiness to become involved, not a flight goes by when I don’t meet someone who has been affected by mental illness in the family.”

Honoring her sister ’s memory
The Sweeney family’s journey with mental illness began when Susan was a child who had unexplained, intense bouts of anger as well as depression. “Despite her challenges, my sister grew up to be bright and driven,” says Sweeney. Susan was the first of four sisters to get a master’s degree and went on to become a respected social worker. During her thirties, however, her condition worsened. “She was on many psychiatric and other medications,” Sweeney notes, “had a drinking problem, asthma and significant weight gain as a side effect of medication.” The cause of Susan’s death was undetermined but thought to be a result of multiple factors related to her depression and medical problems.

“There are other charitable causes I contribute to, including child advocacy, education and art, but the Department of Psychiatry is always my priority. I give to honor my sister’s memory and to help other families avoid the suffering caused by depression,” says Sweeney. “My parents both came from Pittsburgh to attend the first gala,” she notes. “At the end of the event, my father said, ‘It’s so important that people are talking openly about family issues of depression. We were brought up never to talk about these things.’ I knew his comment was the result of hearing stories that night about how others were affected by depression and how the MGH Department of Psychiatry was there to help.”