Kate Fagan is a columnist and feature writer for espnW, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. In May 2015, Fagan published a feature on Madison (Maddy) Holleran, the University of Pennsylvania track and field athlete who died by suicide during her freshman year. Fagan expanded on that story to write a book on Holleran, titled What Made Maddy Run, which came out in August 2017.
Tell me about Maddy Holleran and her story.
Maddy Holleran was a young woman who grew up in New Jersey. She was an all-state soccer player and an all-state runner and she decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania to run track and field. Something about that transition from high school to college along with pressures from the academic, athletic, as well as social, combined with just a genetic predisposition for depression, it kind of all coalesced in her freshman year of college. She died by suicide in the second semester of her freshman year.
I came to the story because I had lived in Philly for three years and I had played college sports and my sister had run track and field for Dartmouth, another Ivy, so I had a lot of connections to the story. I thought that in some ways I could understand as much as you can – not what happened to Maddy – but the environment in which she grew up and elements of the college athletic experience.
Could you talk about the challenges that college students and college athletes in particular face today and how it is affecting their mental health?
I think some of them are social media and technology related. Studies do show an increase in anxiety the more we’re engaged with our phones. There’s also just the shock of any sort of struggle when you come to college because the messaging of college is often that it’s going to be awesome. Then when it’s not what you thought it was going to look like that can be difficult. If you add on college sports, I don’t think there is any way to prepare you for the physical and emotional demands of a sport at a college level in all divisions. I think if you combine all of those it can be a transition that is really really tough for a lot of people.
Do you have a message that you hope people will take away from your book and your talk?
I think the message of Maddy’s story, more than anything, is the more we’re open to understanding how certain changes in our culture are leading to different functions of the brain and leading to different understandings of experiences at the college level. I think the more we talk about that stuff openly the less alone a lot of people feel. I know for Maddy, you can look at her communications, and she certainly thought something was wrong with her and she didn’t want to seek the community whether it be help at the counseling center or chapters of mental health groups that exist on a lot of college campuses. So, the larger message would be that building community in that regard is really a helpful place to get people through some of those really dark times.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.