AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A new book by sportswriter Kate Fagan delves into the life of a young woman whose suicide shocked the University of Pennsylvania. Madison Holleran ran track at Penn. She was popular and beautiful and raised in a big, supportive family in a New Jersey suburb.
KATE FAGAN: By all accounts, Madison in high school was this young, happy, vibrant, wildly successful human being, who was destined, according to everyone around her, to do amazing things with her life.
CHANG: From the outside, Fagan says, Madison appeared to be thriving in college, too. But inside, she was struggling with anxiety and depression. Then, in the middle of her freshman year, Madison ended her life by jumping off a building in the middle of downtown Philadelphia.
The suicide raised a lot of questions about mental health on college campuses. And it got Fagan wanting to understand "What Made Maddy Run." That's the title of her new book, which explores why college athletes, like Madison, sometimes find it hard to seek help for anxiety or depression.
FAGAN: She did talk about it privately with her parents, not to such a level that, I think, they thought this was an imminent, desperate problem they needed to solve immediately. But it was hard for her to talk about with those who were closest to her in college because she was on a competitive track and field team in a Division 1 school.
And the focus there is on athletic performance. And the focus is on overcoming those hurdles to become a better athlete. And that's a hard environment to say, wait a second. I'm struggling, and I can't put my finger on what it is. It's not something physical. It's something mental.
CHANG: Right, you mention this concept called Penn Face at one point. What his Penn Face?
FAGAN: It's a term that those who attended or currently attend Penn use to describe this relentless pursuit of achievement. And when you look around at Penn, you see, quote, unquote, "Penn Face," which is happy, easy, everything is coming naturally, where below the surface, there's, like, this furious pedaling.
CHANG: And despite, you know, all these struggles that Madison was going through underneath, you wouldn't know that from her social media profiles, right? I mean, she very carefully curated this other image of herself to others.
FAGAN: Absolutely, and there's this exchange between Madison and her mom. She's just finished a really challenging race on a hot day. And she's collapsed at the finish line. And she's in a bad place. And her mom says, let's get a picture together. And Madison instantaneously goes from withdrawn and sullen and depleted to full of life and ready to capture a moment that she would then share, projecting this image of a college experience and a college athlete who's at the top of their game.
CHANG: That compulsion to self-edit, it's something that, I think, we can all relate to. You make this really great point in the book that we've been doing this since the beginning of time. When we would commission paintings of ourselves, we would ask the painters to soften the features or make ourselves look thinner. But maybe what's different between the way we used to self-edit and now is just the sheer volume of sort of this PR campaign we each run for ourselves on social media.
FAGAN: Yeah, this was something that Madison dealt with constantly was she knew that she was projecting an image of herself that was not real. And she articulated that to people. And yet, when she looked at her very close high school friends and what they were projecting on social media, she took it at face value. And I think we all do that to some degree. I mean, there's the famous Montesquieu quote that's like, we all want to be happy. But the problem is that we want to be as happy as other people. And we imagine them to be happier than they are.
CHANG: So when you were presented with these bifurcated worlds, the Madison online and the interior wilderness of Madison, how did you go about researching and learning who Madison Holleran really was?
FAGAN: Madison's family gave me Madison's computer, which contained her iMessages and emails that she sent that, I think, give her voice and often show actually less than you'd think about her internal mental state. So much of what she communicated was punctuated with emojis or LOL or ha ha ha - but particularly emojis. There was a lot of, like, monkey covering eyes, monkey covering ears.
There is no human, in-person representation of, say, a monkey covering eyes. If you were sitting across from a friend of yours who said, I hate it at school. I have to leave, monkey covering eyes. Like, what would that person do in person with you? There would be no representation of it. And you would know this was serious. But because it was done digitally and with this punctuation of emojis, it softens everything.
CHANG: We're often told that happiness is a choice, that it's all perspective or it's how you choose to look at things. But a story like Madison's, it reminds us that happiness is very much not a choice for so many people out there. Why do you think talking openly about depression is still so hard?
FAGAN: I think the overall struggle can come from a fear that if we start opening up about small anxieties or bigger depression, that we're then going to open up this big can of worms in discussing suicide. And we believe that talking about it will actually bring it into reality, where the opposite is often true.
CHANG: So what can schools and athletic departments do better to help students struggling with mental health issues?
FAGAN: Well, that's the big question right now. And I think when you compare the millions of dollars that are poured into the physical health of athletes with the small potatoes that are often put into their mental health, it's really easy to see why so many student athletes don't feel that there's a place within the athletic department for them to speak openly about how they might be feeling.
And I think on the college counseling side, we're seeing those rates of anxiety and depression increase. And they're often operating like in triage principles, where the waits for counseling appointments are weeks, which can often, to a young person, feel like years. And so I think there's assessment that we need to do about what's happening in our culture that is causing these rising rates of anxiety and depression.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN TEJADA'S "TWO O ONE")
CHANG: That was Kate Fagan of ESPNW. Her new book is called "What Made Maddy Run."
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