Growing up in New Jersey, Madison Holleran was well-liked, a good student and a star high school athlete. Holleran enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania where she ran track. To the outside world, she seemed happy, but she was struggling more than anyone knew. And on Jan. 17, 2014, she walked to the top of a nine-story parking garage in Philadelphia and jumped off.
ESPN’s Kate Fagan wrote about Madison Holleran’s life and death for ESPN The Magazine. Social media and how it affected Madison’s view of the world were a big part of that story. And the article has generated a conversation about suicide. Fagan joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Tell us a little bit about Madison Holleran’s childhood.
When you look at someone's Instagram, it's not the whole story.Kate Fagan, ESPN
BL: When she arrived at Penn, the dream of a positive and enjoyable college experience did not materialize. What went wrong?
KF: I think the key thing to remember is, all of this is against the backdrop of a young woman who clearly was suffering depression. Everything that she was seeing and feeling seemed to be skewed by the mental illness that she was suffering from. Because she was so stressed about grades and she kept telling her friends and family that she thought she was failing out of Penn, and she ended up getting a 3.5.
And she thought running was not going the way she wanted, and this was someone who won the New Jersey state championships in the 800s, and talking to her coach, she was his strongest freshman runner. So everything wasn't perfect for her that first year but nothing that really could make sense of the decision she made.
BL: Madison Holleran was very active on the social media photo-sharing site Instagram. How did she present herself on Instagram? And how did the way her friends presented themselves factor into her depression?
So there was some level that Madison knew she was curating her Instagram, in that it wasn't showing the gray areas and the sad moments, and I think there's a parallel to be made between how we curate our online lives and put these filters and make everything seem perfect and how oftentimes people who suffer from depression or mental illness are often also encouraged to put on a happy face or seem like everything's OK.
BL: I want to turn to the reaction that your story has been getting — particularly on social media. Your twitter feed is dotted with people responding and using the hashtag #LifeUnfiltered. Tell us about what people have been saying in that context.
KF: The key connection we tried to make in this story was that this is not about blaming social media or saying there's something wrong with the lives we present on social media. It's simply verbalizing for people that sometimes when you look at someone's Instagram, it's not the whole story.
We know we're not just going to jump to a place where everybody's constantly posting their unedited thoughts, because that's just not how our society has worked. But we were hoping to open the door to at least being very deliberate about saying, "Hey, social media and my Instagram feed is not my whole story — just please keep that in mind as you look at that."
BL: Kate, your article appeared in the issue of ESPN The Magazine titled “Perfection.” Madison struggled with striving for perfection. After working on this story, did you feel you had learned something about young athletes — and young people in general — who are trying to live up to a standard that's perhaps impossible?
KF: I think I must have gotten maybe 40 or 50 emails from current college students who maybe were going through their freshman years or were juniors and were just thinking back on their freshman years, and they didn't feel like they could actually verbalize how much anxiety they felt about being in that new environment, how they had been told repeatedly, "This is the time of your life." And they weren't feeling like this was the time of their life, but they didn't know they could talk about that.
And I think perhaps that is compounded for student athletes who — many people will look at their lives and be like, "They're so blessed and they're so lucky to be given that opportunity." But they're also dealing with the added stress of an athletic career that has morphed from sometimes fun into almost job-like in college. So that's what really struck me was perhaps we're not talking enough about the anxiety — and for some people it doesn't morph into depression, for others it does — that young people face when they get to their freshman year on campus, and sometimes even throughout college.
This segment aired on May 16, 2015.