Today I read an article from ESPN. It is the story of a young woman who ran track at Penn and who killed herself the January of her freshman year of college.
The piece is really, really important. Not just to me, but it is important for educators, administrators, parents, and students alike. It highlights something really important; it shows that freshman year can stir up a lot in someone.
Though Madison Holleran, the young woman commemorated in this piece, seemed to have it all – a spot at a prestigious university, athletic talent, strong friendships, and a supportive family, she still felt inescapable sadness. Enough sadness that she took her own life. The piece published by ESPN is entitled “Split Image” and takes the angle that social media played a prominent role in Madison’s decision to commit suicide. It focuses on the instagram filtered life Madison projected to the rest of the world, and claims that this image masked her inner pain.
It is clear that social media did play a role in this story. But what seems significant to me is that Madison was plagued with the feeling that college was supposed to be something specific and that her reality was not aligning with the specific something she expected college to be.
The evidence for this idea, that college is meant to be something specific, an exciting and fun filled experience, at least for Madison, came from what she saw on social media. Both the photos Madison consumed and the images she produced on instagram seemed to reflect happiness, easy adjustment to college, and success – both athletic success and social success. But a friend of Madison’s who also struggled at Penn said that before the two parted for winter break, Madison had asked, “What are you going to say when you go home to all your friends? I feel like all my friends are having so much fun at school.” Obviously the idea that all her friends were having so much fun could have come from the edited and filtered social media presences they used to convey their lives. But, I think there is also a preconceived notion ingrained in young students that college is supposed to be fun and that it should look a certain way. This notion causes young people to create these images of fun and concoct the perfect college experience – real or desired – on social media.
Near the beginning of the article, the author explains that as a society we’ve always had the option to omit the less appealing parts of our lives – with the phone one was able to determine what one wanted to share, in letters people only wrote the stories they wanted others to read, but the author notes a big difference with social media today: the quantity and prevalence of social media perusal. Kate Fagan writes:
With Instagram, one thing has changed: the amount we consume of one another’s edited lives. Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others’ filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered. In a recent survey conducted by the Girl Scouts, nearly 74 percent of girls agreed that other girls tried to make themselves look ‘cooler than they are’ on social networking sites.
All of this is very true. Social media is very clearly a piece of the puzzle, and social media certainly supports this widespread longing for a picture perfect experience. But it isn’t the whole problem.
I think a large part of the problem is that so much happens at once when students transition from high school to college. The trajectory starts when students set too many high expectations of themselves and their own achievement early on in college or before they even get there, then put specific expectations on the over all college experience and what it should be like. When these expectations are not immediately met and instead students experience stress, feel overwhelmed, and on top of it all compare their progress with the progress of others – based on their filtered instagram feeds, the issues arise. Students take for granted the fact that when they enter college they will have to build a new network of friends, they may be far from home, they will have more challenging school work, and for student athletes the trainings get harder and the commitment to the team is more significant. For many, it takes a full year or more to feel fully comfortable at a new institution.
Students with undiagnosed mental illnesses are often triggered during this juncture, causing symptoms to swell, and those not predisposed to any sort of mental illnesses are still liable to feel some emotional distress. I think for Madison, the first semester at Penn brewed a perfect storm. She may have struggled with depression in the past, but had constant support, had great friends, and maybe had a stronger ability to conceal whatever she was feeling. But people can only conceal their sadness for so long, and when young people are met with the multitude of challenges they are often unprepared to face in college, the ability to hold it together and move along diminishes, and the pain sometimes becomes too tough to bare.
So what is the point here? What needs to happen?
I think we need to be more honest with ourselves, with our friends, and with the resources in place on college campuses. It’s still rather taboo to be emotional in our culture, and even more taboo to be sad, especially in cases where we “have so much going for us” or in those circumstances where our “lives seem perfect.” So it makes sense that students struggle to open up especially when they are just starting an exciting journey – a journey that should be joyful and thrilling, a journey many feel privileged to embark on. However, it’s important to remember that there is no such thing as the perfect life and there is no such thing as the perfect college experience.
It doesn’t matter how great things are going on the outside, if things don’t feel right on the inside, it’s crucial to speak up. Whatever you are feeling is valid, regardless of your circumstances, and I think there is a great need for people to validate their own feelings and for people to validate the feelings of others – even when they are not picture perfect – as much as possible. I can honestly say that I tried to rationalize and avoided validating my own depressive thoughts and feelings as a freshman, which is probably why this article really struck me. In many ways, it took me back to a time when I felt very alone and like everyone had figured something out that I simply hadn’t. Much of the incentive for writing this article is the fact that I desperately needed to process the ESPN editorial because it touched a little close to home.
I truly hope that in the next few years wellness education becomes a more prevalent part of the freshman year curricula and that a stronger dialogue opens up about the trials of adjusting to college life. We need to become more comfortable talking about our emotions and expressing when we are not ok. We need to allow ourselves and each other the space to bring all of this up instead of burying it in a compelling quote on Facebook or glimmering instagram snapshot. We also need to stop stacking so many expectations on the “college experience” and take the collegiate phase of life as it comes, just like any other.
Food for thought! Feel free to comment, this is a topic I feel very passionate about and committed to, it’s a large part of the reason I wish to work in higher education.
Thanks for reading.
*If you are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts please reach out to someone! If you can’t open up to a loved one, a friend, coach, or teacher or anyone else, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing: 1 (800) 273-8255.