It’s a story you never want to hear, but one that is all too real for so many. It’s the sleepless nights and the long hours of the day where all you want is to melt into your bed. It’s the conversations you can’t remember because everything was just a cloud, and the world seemed to be crashing down for no apparent reason. Your grades aren’t on their downward spiral. You’ve got the right group of friends. Your weekends are booked with on-campus events and parties in the Mods, Walsh, or on Foster. Your Snapchat story is flashing lights, smiling faces, and red solo cups. Your Facebook reminds you of talks and free food around campus. Most importantly, your Instagram filters out everything that sucks about college, including your shitty depression and the pressure to live up to the so-called college experience your friends seem to be living.
ESPN’s Kate Fagan ran this exact story belonging to one girl in particular, a University of Pennsylvania track runner from New Jersey named Madison Holleran who just seemed to have it all. Athletic, intelligence backed by the prestige of attending an Ivy League school, gorgeous, and surrounded by friends and smiles. Madison did have it all; at least that’s what she wanted her friends and family to think when scrolling through her Instagram. I can’t entirely speak for Madison because I’ll never fully understand what she went through in her final days before taking her own life in an attempt to escape, but I do know how scary and dark those days can feel even with a filter on every beautiful moment.
Like Madison, my first semester was riddled with the pressures to not only fit in at school, but also on social media. By this point, I had been battling anxiety with mood swings and bouts of depression (a milder form of bipolar disorder known as cyclothymia) for a number of years, but remained untreated. My anxiety drove me to make college look as fun as possible, even though I recognized a downswing was imminent. October at BC was a muffled hell, not intense but so empty and hollow and inescapable. November wasn’t much better. However, my posts featuring friends, #gassongrams, and Halloween costumes told a different story, and as long as I raked in the likes, I could keep pretending everything was fine.
No one could see my pain though. My Instagram couldn’t show people the times I would force myself to sleep in class, in the library, or even on the floor because I needed to escape my anxiety. I couldn’t post a picture of my heartbreak after realizing I fell in love with the idea of someone, someone who was not right for me from the beginning. No status could document the parties with people I didn’t know, the blackouts afterward, and the loneliness the next day, worried that i might have said or done something hurtful to a friend. No post would sum up the struggle to balance rowing for BC, a social life, and my academics. It wasn’t searing pain day in and day out though. My depression first semester was something like an eternal hammer, not one that hits and hits and hits a nail. The hammer hit once and just kept pressing until it was unbearable. I finally called my mom for help and met with a doctor over Thanksgiving break.
College is a difficult period of adjustment for anyone, and the age of social media makes it even more so. As I read Madison’s story on ESPN.com this past week, I couldn’t help but recall the times I posted photos on Instagram just feel some type of high. I wouldn’t say it was an all around bad high though. I could share a moment of fun or beauty with dozens of people that followed me, even when I felt my loneliest and darkest. I can only imagine that Madison must have felt a similar way before she died. I obviously did not know her personally and unfortunately never will, but her story has touched me and thousands of others. There is always something good that derives from something horrible, and in the case of Madison, it’s safe to say that lives will be saved because friends and families will look beyond the gilded Instagrams and clever tweets and recognize the red flags that indicate mental illness. If you think a loved one is struggling with mental illness, please don’t hesitate to talk with them. If you yourself feel that you could be experiencing a degree of mental illness, please seek help as soon as you can. Know the signs and see past the filter; you could save a life.