Teen uses pageants for men­tal health ad­vo­cacy

Teen with hair pulling disor­der uses pageants for men­tal health ad­vo­cacy

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Michilea Pat­ter­son mpat­ter­son@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @MichileaP on Twit­ter

Up­per Potts­grove teen Sarah Pen­ning­ton spreads aware­ness of hair-pulling disor­der tri­chotil­lo­ma­nia.

It’s not un­usual for 18-year-old Sarah Pen­ning­ton, of Up­per Potts­grove, to use makeup to fill in her thin­ning eye­brows, put on fake eye­lashes to re­place the ones she doesn’t have or wear wigs to cover the bald patches on her head. Since the age of 11, she has been on a jour­ney of self-ac­cep­tance after learn­ing she has the hair-pulling disor­der tri­chotil­lo­ma­nia.

Tri­chotil­lo­ma­nia is a com­pul­sive be­hav­ior that can in­clude pulling out eye­lashes, head hair and ba­si­cally any hair on the body. The con­tin­u­ous ac­tion leads to bald patches. Pen­ning­ton said she’s not even con­scious of do­ing the ac­tion un­til it’s over.

“I’m not in­ten­tion­ally hurt­ing my­self. It’s some­thing that I’ve de­vel­oped as a way to bring down anx­i­ety or some­thing to do if I’m bored,” she said.

Pen­ning­ton has al­ways strug­gled with anx­i­ety, mostly in so­cial sit­u­a­tions and with school. In 5th grade, she started pluck­ing out her eye­brows. Her mom re­searched the be­hav­ior and learned it was a disor­der that sev­eral oth­ers had. About two in 50 peo­ple en­gage in the hair-pulling be­hav­ior dur­ing their life­time.

“I was lucky be­cause there are so many peo­ple who have it and don’t re­al­ize they’re not the only per­son in the world that does this,” Pen­ning­ton said.

It was quite a jour­ney for Pen­ning­ton be­fore she was able to be com­fort­able with her­self and her disor­der. She started to com­pete in pageants dur­ing 6th grade but quit around the age of 13 when her disor­der pro­gressed into pulling out the hair on her head as well as her eye­brows. At the age of 14, she at­tended her first men­tal health con­fer­ence in New Jersey. The con­fer­ence was through the Tri­chotil­lo­ma­nia Learn­ing Cen­ter Foun­da­tion for Body-Fo­cused Repet­i­tive Be­hav­iors. Body-fo­cused repet­i­tive be­hav­iors in­clude nail bit­ing, pick­ing at skin and of course hair pulling.

“That was the best and worst thing that had ever hap­pened to me at that time,” Pen­ning­ton said.

She said the con­fer­ence was over­whelm­ing at first be­cause she was meet­ing so many peo­ple with repet­i­tive men­tal health be­hav­iors. It sur­prised her that the older in­di­vid­u­als with the be­hav­iors were so com­fort­able with them­selves and okay with be­ing bald from hair pulling.

Last year, Pen­ning­ton was hav­ing a hard time with her tri­chotil­lo­ma­nia as well as with de­pres­sion and so­cial anx­i­ety. She wasn’t able to fo­cus on her school work be­cause she was al­ways pulling her hair. The de­pres­sion made it dif­fi­cult for her to func­tion in other daily tasks. Her ther­apy didn’t seem to be mak­ing a big dif­fer­ence with her men­tal health so she went to a hospi­tal in Wis­con­sin to re­ceive res­i­den­tial treat­ment for three months.

“You don’t nor­mally think that you’re go­ing to go to a psy­chi­atric hospi­tal at one point in your life but the peo­ple that I met there sur­prised me in that they changed my per­cep­tion of men­tal ill­ness com­pletely,” Pen­ning­ton said.

Even though Pen­ning­ton had a men­tal health disor­der of her own, she was still prej­u­diced against those with self-harm be­hav­iors. At the psy­chi­atric hospi­tal in Wis­con­sin, she had a room­mate with an eat­ing disor­der and re­al­ized they had sim­i­lar is­sues they both strug­gled with.

“It kind of hit me that … this is some­thing that could hap­pen to any­one,” she said.

After her stay at the hospi­tal, Pen­ning­ton be­came re­ally pas­sion­ate about men­tal health aware­ness and wanted to help oth­ers un­der­stand what such ill­nesses were ac­tu­ally all about, be­yond the stig­mas. She took that pas­sion and started cre­at­ing videos on YouTube about her jour­ney with tri­chotil­lo­ma­nia. In her first video, she took off her hat and showed the bald patches on her head stat­ing “this is me.” After that coura­geous mo­ment, Pen­ning­ton de­cided to go with­out her hat at school and said she got a re­ally pos­i­tive re­sponse and a lot of supporters.

“I’m at the point where I can say if I didn’t have tri­chotil­lo­ma­nia, I would be a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son and I love who I am right now,” Pen­ning­ton said.

After gain­ing more self-con­fi­dence, Pen­ning­ton re­turned to com­pet­ing in pageants. Last year, she com­peted and won in her first pageant since her hia­tus from the schol­ar­ship pro­gram. She is now the reign­ing Miss Free­dom Forge’s Out­stand­ing Teen and her plat­form is men­tal health. She’s us­ing her crown to spread the mes­sage that it’s OK to be your­self and that you don’t

“I’m break­ing the cy­cle by talk­ing about my disor­der and not be­ing afraid to go out in pub­lic to say ‘I’m bald but I’m okay with that.’ I re­ally want to make sure peo­ple know that there’s a com­mu­nity out there will­ing to help them with what­ever strug­gles they’re go­ing through, whether it be a men­tal health disor­der or not.” — Sarah Pen­ning­ton

have to be a cer­tain “type” to com­pete in pageants.

“This is a huge step for not just me but for the men­tal health com­mu­nity,” Pen­ning­ton said.

This sum­mer, Pen­ning­ton went to the White House in Wash­ing­ton D.C. for Hill Day. The day was all about push­ing for dif­fer­ent bill con­cern­ing var­i­ous men­tal health is­sues. While there, Pen­ning­ton was able to dis­cuss the is­sues she’s ad­vo­cat­ing for with Rep. Ryan Costello, R-6th Dist.

“He’s re­ally push­ing for men­tal health bills,” she said.

Pen­ning­ton is work­ing on get­ting more in­sur­ance com­pa­nies to cover men­tal health ther­a­pies and providers. She said a lot of the providers are out of net­work and even the ones that are cov­ered by in­sur­ance have a long wait­ing list. If Pen­ning­ton’s fam­ily in­sur­ance hadn’t cov­ered her stay at the psy­chi­atric hospi­tal in Wis­con­sin then it would have cost $30,000.

Pen­ning­ton is also help­ing to spread aware­ness about men­tal health through her “Show Your Hero Project.”

“It’s ba­si­cally an or­ga­ni­za­tion that I cre­ated to show peo­ple that it’s okay to strug­gle with things and they’re he­roes for sur­viv­ing the many strug­gles that we go through,” she said.

Pen­ning­ton said she knows ev­ery­one has those days where they don’t want to get out bed be­cause of ob­sta­cles in their life and she wants to rec­og­nize those that per­sist to over­come their dif­fi­cul­ties. Al­though the project is mainly fo­cused on men­tal health, the over­all mes­sage can ap­ply to any­one. Pen­ning­ton now has a web­site for the project with in­for­ma­tion on men­tal health and where peo­ple can get help.

“It’s such a preva­lent topic in to­day’s so­ci­ety and it’s so im­por­tant,” she said.

The Show Your Hero Project started last fall when Pen­ning­ton be­gan bring­ing care pack­ages to chil­dren re­ceiv­ing men­tal health care lo­cally. She raises money to pur­chase sup­plies for the chil­dren. Pen­ning­ton is also con­tin­u­ing to use videos to spread her mes­sages about men­tal health. She made a 10-minute doc­u­men­tary about what it’s like to live with a men­tal health ill­ness which was screened at the Pottstown Film Fes­ti­val this sum­mer.

In ad­di­tion to film mak­ing, Pen­ning­ton also has a pas­sion for mu­sic. Singing was her tal­ent when she com­peted in the Miss Penn­syl­va­nia’s Out­stand­ing Teen pageant in Pitts­burgh this past June. This was a huge achieve­ment for her es­pe­cially since Pen­ning­ton has strug­gled with per­form­ing in front of oth­ers be­cause of her so­cial anx­i­ety.

“Singing is just kind of be­ing free and just let­ting ev­ery­thing out of me,” she said adding that it’s an­other way for her to share her story with oth­ers.

When­ever Pen­ning­ton hears mu­sic, she starts to cre­ate a story in her head. She’s able to com­bine her pas­sions for mu­sic and film­mak­ing in or­der to get her mes­sage out there in a pow­er­ful way. Pen­ning­ton said shar­ing her jour­ney with tri­chotil­lo­ma­nia through video has in­spired oth­ers strug­gling with their own dis­or­ders.

“It’s such a big deal to them but no one talks about it,” she said.

Pen­ning­ton will con­tinue pur­su­ing film­mak­ing after she grad­u­ates from Potts­grove High School this year. As a col­lege fresh­man, she plans to con­tinue to change the stig­mas about men­tal health ill­nesses by shar­ing her own story and the story of oth­ers.

“I’m break­ing the cy­cle by talk­ing about my disor­der and not be­ing afraid to go out in pub­lic to say I’m bald but I’m okay with that. I re­ally want to make sure peo­ple know that there’s a com­mu­nity out there will­ing to help them with what­ever strug­gles they’re go­ing through, whether it be a men­tal health disor­der or not,” she said.

To find out more about Sarah Pen­ning­ton and her jour­ney with tri­chotil­lo­ma­nia, visit her YouTube chan­nel at www.youtube.com/ chan­nel/UCCx0UO5Eutz9y­d­kMrEOZCQA and her Show Your Hero Project web­site at showyourhero. wee­bly.com.


Sarah Pen­ning­ton poses for a photo with her dad while wear­ing a crown she won in a pageant. Pen­ning­ton com­petes in lo­cal pageants to help elim­i­nate the stigma about the schol­ar­ship pro­grams and men­tal health ill­nesses.


Sarah Pen­ning­ton poses for a photo with her brother when she was 11. This was the same age she learned she had a hair-pulling disor­der after re­peat­edly pluck­ing out her eye­brows.


Sarah Pen­ning­ton is the reign­ing Miss Free­dom Forge’s Out­stand­ing Teen and her plat­form is men­tal health. She’s used her reign to spread her mes­sage about men­tal health ill­nesses and to help elim­i­nate stig­mas.


Sarah Pen­ning­ton is used to us­ing makeup to fill in her eye­brows or wear­ing wigs to cover the bald patches on her head be­cause of a hair-pulling disor­der she has called tri­chotil­lo­ma­nia. She is now com­fort­able go­ing in pub­lic with­out a wig or hat be­cause she’s happy with who she is.


Sarah Pen­ning­ton, the reign­ing Miss Free­dom Fo­rum’s Out­stand­ing Teen, poses for a photo with Rep. Ryan Costello. Both Costello and Pen­ning­ton vis­ited the White House this sum­mer to ad­vo­cate for bills about men­tal health.

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