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August 2019
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It’s OK to not be OK

“It’s not normal. It’s not normal to feel like this.”

These words will never leave the mind of Madison Holleran’s sister. Because just a few weeks after Madison uttered them over Christmas break 2013, she  leapt off a nine-story garage deck in Philadelphia, killing herself. 

Holleran, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, had gone from a superstar high school athlete and academic at her Pennsylvania high school to running track at Penn, an Ivy League school. In just one semester, the 19-year-old went from star to struggling – at least in her mind. But no one watching her social media feed would know the inner struggles of this larger than life kid.

Madison was a star athlete in high school, first with soccer then in track. She was the NJ State Champion in the 800m in 2013. She had a seemingly perfect social life – she was popular and kind by all accounts. She succeeded at everything. And maybe that was the problem. 

In her new book, What Made Maddy Run, ESPN commentator and journalist Kate Fagan, details Holleran’s heart-breaking story and along the way reveals the struggle of many young people as they transition from high school to college. 

Maddy’s story is one of a battle with sudden depression as the move from high school to college became overwhelming. She missed her family and found the intense academic and athletic demands, things that had always come so easily, unbearable. Madison was accustomed to being a high achiever in the classroom and on the track. By most peoples’ standards Madison’s performance at college was still stellar, but she wasn’t meeting the demands she placed on herself. 

In her book, Fagan does a wonderful job of showing the pressures young people, particularly college athletes, face to be perfect, especially in an age of relentless social-media.

Although she committed suicide in January of 2014, Madison Holleran’s Instagram feed is still up (maddyholleran), and shows the last photo she posted of the Philadelphia skyline just one hour before she jumped. The image was filtered, Fagan points out in the book -- meaning that before committing suicide Holleran took time to touch up the last image so it would look better than it really was.

Since her death, her family has started the Madison Holleran Foundation. The purpose is to let kids know “It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to show people you’re not OK.”

Depression can happen to anybody at any time, even people who seem to have it all.  Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults. Estimates show there are over 40,000 suicides each year, 4,500 of these are young people. 

In Maddy’s case, she was a perfectionist who struggled when she thought she wasn’t the best.  And it made things more difficult when she looked at social media. In her book, Fagan writes: “They scroll through others’ Instagram accounts and say, ‘This is what college is supposed to be like; this is what we want our life to be like.’ While her friends told her they too were struggling, the images on social media trumped the reality they were privately sharing.” The life we curate online is distinctly different from the one we actually live.

A little over a year before she died, Madison posted on Instagram a snapshot of a quote from Seventeen magazine: “Even people you think are perfect are going through something difficult.” That image too had been put through a filter. 

Fagan’s book is a must read. If you’re a parent of an athlete or an academic or just a parent whose child may be facing a transition in life. And if you are a young person, find this book if you feel you are struggling to measure up. 

And when we see those perfect images on social media, remember they likely have been put through a filter.