College freshman Madison Holleran started at Penn in 2013 as a track and field athlete from Allendale, N.J. Her death by suicide five months later has prompted a conversation on mental health in athletic departments in institutions of higher education.
Major media outlets began to investigate the factors that led to Holleran's death, including the Kate Fagan ESPN feature “Split Image" and her best-selling book, “What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen," published in August 2017. Fagan told The Daily Pennsylvanian that what makes Holleran's story impactful is its relation to the increased anxiety and depression associated with the “success culture" among young people.
“One of main themes of the book was about social media and technology and the effects of technology on our brain, including issues of increased anxiety,” Fagan said. “When Maddy died, that was a salient point to make about Instagram and Snapchat.”
These issues began being addressed in institutions and across higher education. A college suicide prevention bill dedicated to Holleran was passed in New Jersey in 2016 requiring mental health resources to be more readily accessible to college students. And at Ivy League schools, officials began addressing mental health for athletes in light of Holleran's death through discussions and the distribution of Fagan's book.
This January, the Harvard Varsity Club distributed copies of “What Made Maddy Run” to Harvard University athletes after Harvard alumna and Varsity Club special assistant Jessica Perillo introduced the book and suggested it be shared. Before spreading the book to Harvard varsity captains this semester, coaches and athletic administrators received the book in December.
Although Harvard has not had any formal discussions dedicated to Fagan's book, Harvard assistant baseball coach Bryan Stark said coaches often bring it up in small groups or department meetings. Stark added that although the book distribution acted as a resource to acknowledge the university's hyper-competitive environment, Holleran's story alone is not the original reason Harvard began to pay greater attention to its athletes’ mental health.
Stark said that Holleran's story has, however, made him more receptive to the importance of warning signs in athletes’ behavior.
“Just reading more about it, as days go by, I think it’s been a natural trend that you pay more attention to things here and there,” Stark said. “I have a very close eye on our guys’ body language and the kind of moods they’re in. We try to pay attention to things that stick out a bit more for an extended period of time or people going from real highs or real lows quickly throughout the course of the day.”
At Cornell University, Fagan's book is not widely distributed, but Fagan herself spoke at an event on campus in April 2017 on the topic of mental health in athletics. Cornell assistant athletic trainer Kathryn Jean Harris said that Holleran's story often comes up during informal conversation among coaches and other staff.
“Mental health and physical health go hand in hand and are not two separate things,” Harris said. “The conversations I have been a part of have always been how we can improve and make things better for our student athletes at Cornell and how we can break the stigma.”
Cornell’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee created a video in April 2018 addressing the mental health stigma among athletes, using the hashtag #DontBearItAlone. However, Harris attributes the increased awareness of mental health in college athletics to a nationwide trend rather than Holleran's story specifically.
Cornell Associate Director of Athletics for Communications Jeremy Hartigan agreed, saying that Holleran's case is “important, but not a rallying cry.”
At Princeton University, Princeton Women’s Center will collaborate with Princeton Counseling and Psychological Services to welcome Fagan on April 30 for a discussion named “Pressure to be Perfect.”
While there has been many concrete steps taken to improve mental health resources specific to athletes across the Ivy Leagues, there has been little improvement on Penn's campus toward increasing accessibility.
The DP reported on senior fencer Ashley Marcus's efforts to lobby Penn's administration. Her proposal suggested Penn allot one of the five CAPS therapists it plans to hire this year to work out of a Penn Athletics building, as well as hire an additional therapist as part of its own budget. Marcus has said she has received no indication that Penn is considering her proposal. Other issues in Penn Athletics such as member retention are closely related to mental health as well.
Holleran's friend and teammate, 2016 College graduate Taylor Hennig, says the pressure Holleran was under is indicative of many other students at Penn, including athletes, who Hennig says often feel that they must constantly perform their best in every area of life.
"There are certain expectations of you that one, you maintain your grades and two, you do well in your sport because you were recruited and you have a job to fulfill,” College freshman and track team member Ashley Anumba said. “We all know that being here is hard enough.”
“There weren’t as many open signs to people close to her that she was struggling because she hid it pretty well,” Hennig said. “It’s a reminder that we should all be comfortable talking about mental health and the people we should least expect are suffering still can be.”
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