Madison Holleran’s life ended short, but Kate Fagan wrote a story, then a book, because she wanted to start an honest conversation about the struggles Holleran faced — struggles from social media pressure and the transition to college.
Fagan, a columnist for ESPN, came to Ohio State Monday to headline “Life Unfiltered,” an OUAB event that focused on her new book, “What Made Maddy Run,” and the mental health issues faced by many young people, including student-athletes.
Published in August, the book explores Holleran’s life, which ended Jan. 17, 2014, when the 19-year-old freshman runner at the University of Pennsylvania died by suicide. Fagan first chronicled Holleran’s story in a widely read piece for ESPN The Magazine in May 2015.
“The magazine piece, I really wanted [readers] to see social media differently, and the use of technology differently,” Fagan said in an interview with The Lantern. “For the book it was definitely more like, ‘We need to talk about transition to college differently’ … I really want this to be something that students pass to their parents or their friends as a way of communication like, ‘OK this is articulating the things I have been feeling or I see myself in [Holleran].’”
On social media, particularly Instagram, Holleran presented a filtered version of her life, filled with photographs of quotes and pictures in which she looked happy, as if her college experience was going according to plan — or, at least, the plan society has manufactured into existence through social media. Beneath the false projections was a more complicated, and ultimately tragic, reality.
Holleran was struggling. Holleran was depressed.
She spoke to friends and family occasionally about her battles with depression and sought some help, but she felt trapped, unable to see a solution.
“She seemed acutely aware that the life she was curating online was distinctly different from the one she was actually living,” Fagan wrote in the ESPN piece. “Yet she could not apply that same logic when she looked at the projected lives of others.”
There is no singular factor that caused Holleran’s death — with suicide, it’s never that simple. It’s also never inevitable. That’s a fact Fagan tries to emphasize whenever she talks about Holleran.
But by accepting the notion that there is something to be done to prevent suicide, that it’s not inevitable, Fagan said people might feel the need to ask, “Who can I blame?” Sometimes that’s just part of the grieving process, a way to try and understand the impossible to understand.
“So it’s either inevitable and destined, or I’m going to tell you the thing that wasn’t done that could have led to a different outcome,” Fagan said. “Of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle, but Maddy’s outcome was not inevitable.”
In the book, Fagan discusses a report Penn published in 2015 after it had six students die by suicide over a 15-month period. One phrase, which Fagan mentioned in “What Made Maddy Run,” stuck out: “destructive perfectionism.” While coined by a particular university looking into its own campus population, it isn’t a problem isolated to the 10,000-student Ivy League school.
It played a role in Holleran’s life, just as it does for many young people across the country who face the persistent pressures of being successful — whatever that means — and with the constant wave of perfectly presented lives on social media.
“There’s all these different ways you can translate why you don’t want to be so close to this pursuit of this perfectionist ideal, because it is damaging,” Fagan said. “I think that phrase [destructive perfectionism] to me was pretty eye-opening, and then even trying to pull apart how we got to that place when it comes to students and student-athletes. Like, ‘Why are we at a place where there’s all these boxes to check and what I think is a flawed equation on what equates to happiness?’”
Getting away from this place and reforming the parts of society which have led to the national increase of young people facing mental health struggles is a decades-long process, Fagan said. But in the moment, she wants people to remember that there are things they can do, whether they are personally struggling or if a friend or family member is. There is help.
“The main aid is allowing them to know that they’re not alone,” said Fagan, who in the book also chronicles her struggles with mental health as a college basketball player at the University of Colorado.
Fagan said despite the new challenges faced by young people that other generations didn’t experience, or at least experienced differently, she sees hope.
“There’s also a higher emotional IQ than I’ve ever seen among people in high school and in college. They just understand the world and how humans interact in a way that I don’t think — I’m 35 — existed when I was in college. I don’t have this magic blueprint to do that. I just always try to remind myself while I’m talking to be hopeful.
“Be hopeful. Be hopeful.”
Ohio State Student Life’s Counseling and Consultation Service can be reached at 614-292-5766. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.