The first year of college can be fantastic.
Often, freshman year is exactly what we've dreamed of: a fresh start, autonomy and new challenges. But sometimes, and for some people, the first year of college is nothing like that. It can be the hardest year of their lives.
This is true for both students and student-athletes alike.
No precise explanation exists for why this happens, though myriad variables are in play, including loneliness, increased stress, the pressure of creating a new identity, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
In May 2015, here on espnW, we ran a story called Split Image, about the 2014 suicide of Penn track athlete Madison Holleran. The book-length version of that piece -- titled "What Made Maddy Run" -- will be released on Aug 1. And while the book illuminates additional details about what specifically happened to Holleran during her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, it is not solely about the former New Jersey native. It also investigates the broader dangers of perfectionism, the tricky transition to college, the effect of social media on our brains and how we communicate, why the rates of anxiety and depression are rising among young people and many other issues influencing our culture.
These issues are complicated.
But one way to help is quite simple: Talk. Speak openly about experiences in school -- either as student-athletes or students -- to make clear to anyone going through something similar that they are not alone, that there is a clearing on the other side of the storm. Here at espnW, in partnership with book publisher Little, Brown and Company, we wanted to help facilitate that conversation using the hashtag #TalkforMaddy on various social media platforms and by hosting some of that discussion on a Facebook page of the same name.
Madison died by suicide during the first week of her second semester. In those weeks beforehand, only her parents had any indication that Maddy's struggles had morphed beyond just the general homesickness many college freshmen face. One night, after Maddy had returned to Penn for the start of the second semester, she spent time researching what clubs the school had to offer. She saved information on her desktop about a few organizations, including Penn Fashion Collective, Christian Students at Penn, Art Club, AsOne Global at Penn and Active Minds. This last club, Active Minds, is a national organization whose mission statement includes the following: "empowering students to change the perception about mental health on college campuses."
That same night, Madison texted a friend of hers to tell her about her plans for the second semester, how she had researched clubs and that she was excited at the prospect of connecting with different parts of the Penn community. In this text exchange, Madison listed only four of the clubs. She did not mention Active Minds to her friend. Perhaps this was a random omission. But more likely, especially given how reluctant Madison was to discuss how she was feeling with friends, this exclusion was purposeful. She didn't necessarily believe it was OK to tell her friends that she wasn't feeling OK.
It's impossible to know how much an open conversation might have helped Maddy. She seemed to believe she was the only one feeling this way, especially among her fellow student-athletes. Knowing that others, both on her campus and across the country, were struggling with the college transition and all the hurdles it brings, would have at least provided some measure of relief, some measure of community.
For those who now feel like Maddy once did, #TalkforMaddy is an attempt to build that community.