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She Had Wings On (By: Jade Patterson)

Suicide tends to be a topic that gets pushed under the rug, but when it’s your daughter, your best friend, your college roommate, your teammate, or your sister, you think differently. Madison Holleran was all of these things. Did she go through any significant trauma or experience anything different than any other college athlete? No. But does she hold her own story? Absolutely.

Madison Holleran, 19-year-old from New Jersey excelled in playing soccer and running track at her local high school of Northern Highlands Regional. She initially committed to a scholarship at LeHigh to play soccer until her 800m time dropped from 2:20 to 2:13 in track and her phone lines began receiving calls from ivy league schools. Madison then fell in love with the University of Pennsylvania where she attended Fall of 2013 (Gretschel, 2017).

Often times having difficulty with adjustments in life, it is viewed as a typical response to stress and change. Hence why we have ‘adjustment disorders.’ However, major adjustments coupled with enhanced stress and a ‘perfectionist’ attitude among collegiate athletes can look differently or go completely unnoticed. Madison was known as a star athlete at her high school and had helped take her soccer team to win two national titles. She quickly realized her place at Penn State when she found herself at the bottom of her competition and began struggling to keep up with her studies. She was also expected to run cross country, of which she had never done prior. And although Madison’s stress and frustration were elevating, her social media accounts continued to display the contrary. It’s called, “Penn Face” when appearing “effortlessly perfect,” (Lozada, 2017).

Being a Millennial myself, I have lived a life both without smart phones and social media but also was here for the origination of them. I can understand the prevalence of social media among young lives and the impact it can easily have on mindset, body image, and feeling the need to appear ‘perfect’ through only displaying a highlight reel. Individuals born after the mid-90’s, or Generation Z, are much more vulnerable to developing depression and completing suicide. “All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness… if you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence… it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop and do something — anything — that does not involve a screen,” (Schaefer Riley, 2017).

There is a lot of pressure being a collegiate athlete. Not only pressure to perform constantly, and maintaining heavy lifting and workout demands, but also pressure coming from educators, class work, nutrition balance, family, peers, teammates, coaches, and fans. Madison reportedly felt lots of pressure from many of these same areas. She was in constant contact with peers and family and experienced that general pressure of needing to present the idea that she was doing well, and everything is always perfect (Schaefer Riley, 2017). When this happens, when an individual portrays themselves as having this stress-free and ‘perfect’ lifestyle, it can make it more difficult to read their reality, thus it’s more difficult to catch or diagnose those true symptoms.

It was reported there were no relationship issues, drug issues, nor was there any family mental health background, but within the last few weeks there were noticeable changes. Madison had shared with her parents that she was unhappy while over Christmas break that winter of 2014, her freshman year. She reported she was feeling suicidal and did begin seeing a therapist, her dad was even present for one session. He didn’t believe she was ready to return, in fact, her parents begged her not to and suggested that she transfer or even just stay home. Because she was struggling with her studies. She insisted on returning. Madison’s peers even reported seeing no warning signs just hours before the act (Daily Mail Reporter, 2014).

According to Reardon et al., 2019, (p. 671), “Different sports are associated with different risks for depressive symptoms and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)… Among North American athletes, track and field athletes had the highest rates of MDD compared with those in other collegiate sports. Depressive symptoms may be more prevalent in individual sport athletes compared with team sport athletes.” Madison was not even diagnosed with depression yet and I wonder if it was due to lack of reporting or masking symptoms. The last therapy session Madison attended with her dad she was asked to promise that she would reach out if she was having suicidal thoughts and that she would not follow through with the act. Madison’s dad was not convinced leaving the office that day. “Depressive symptoms and MDD may result in decreased performance, adverse effects on personal life or an exit from sport. MDD is also highly associated with suicide and suicidal ideation,” (Reardon et al., 2019, 672). Friends of Madison confided in her and some of her best friends continued to ask her what was going on. She would think ‘if she quit, wasn’t she just a failure?’ After returning to Penn in January of 2015, Madison had written a reminder in her phone quoting, “new mindset; new everything; I can do this; I will do this; you CHOOSE your fate; willing to give it another chance; DON’T LOOK BACK; LOOK FORWARD; SETBACKS ARE NEEDED TO GET STRONGER,” (Lozada, 2017). Soon after, Madison wrote a letter and met with her head coach to quit the team, just a few days prior (Fagan, 2015).

Madison’s sister, Carli, explains Madison’s depression as what seems expedited, stating “other people battle depression for years. With Madison, it feels like one day she was happy, the next she was sad, and the day after she was gone,” (Fagan, 2015). Madison, freshman track athlete at Penn State University, appears to have fallen to the depths of a deep depression she felt she had no way out of. Despite having multiple supports and a loving and attentive family, she still struggled with perfectionism, the need to appear ‘okay’ one hundred percent of the time, and the pressure to perform great at every moment, both on and off the track. Athletes deal with these pressures daily.

The young Philosophy, Politics, and Economics major, got off the phone with her dad after telling him she was working on finding a therapist nearby and headed straight for the gift shop where she would purchase items for her family and friends to leave behind. Although Madison had dinner plans with a friend, she continued to snap one last photo for Instagram, and headed right to parking garage. Just before entering the garage she ran into the head soccer coach at LeHigh, where she initially committed to, and he mentioned she would still be welcome to play for them. Most would think this is a saving grace, however Madison had other plans. It was said to have only taken her between five to fifteen minutes to leave the gift bag by the ledge and physically leap over a railing and off the top of the garage, and with barely a scratch on her, she was pronounced dead. “If she had taken a running leap,’ author Kate Fagan writes, ‘then Maddy never had to stare at the ground, truly contemplate it, before choosing to let go,’” (Lozada, 2017). Part of Madison’s suicide note stated, “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.” Earlier in the journal she had written “Help!” at the beginning of one page, and the end of the next read, “No, no more help,” (Fagan, 2015). “In the largest study of suicide in elite collegiate student athletes in the USA, 7.3% of all deaths were attributed to suicide. Overall, the rate of suicide was 0.93/100 000 in collegiate athletes per year. The mean age of suicide was 20 years,” (Reardon et al., 2019, p. 672).

“Freshman year of college is like walking through an obstacle course wearing a blindfold, and like walking a path lined with land mines,” (Lozada, 2017). If this is the case, if this is how freshman college students view this transition, I believe this is where we need to start. Preparing high school students for the adjustments and transitions of life is crucial in prevention of major stress disorders, depression, and/or suicide. It is suggested by the Madison Holleran Foundation that by implementing tools of preparation for high school students and athletes we can help end the stigma around mental health and offer assistance through use of therapists, psychologists, and counselors ("Madison's story," 2020).

“Suicide prevention interventions should be multimodal, evidence based and range from interventions to manage stress and distress to addressing symptoms of MDD and overt suicidal ideation,” (Reardon et al., 2019, p. 672). Evidence based models and interventions can include the following: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Trauma-Focused CBT, Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Interpersonal Processing Therapy (IPT), and lastly, what should also be included into the treatment plans and goals, is pharmacology and the implementation of medications coupled with consistent psychotherapy.

Other ideas might include arranging for new or incoming athletes reporting to that organization’s athletic counseling, sport psychology, or campus counseling centers upon arrival to be evaluated and tested for current mental and physical health needs. In doing so, this can provide a community for this new athlete to feel a part of something and know who they can report to for confidential support throughout their time. In Madison’s case, it would also be helpful to have met with her and to have reached out to her parents with any concerns, or because Madison’s symptoms were very restricted, at least reaching out to her parents might connect the two support systems to better become aware of her needs and intervene early.

“Strategies to understand and modify environmental stressors for elite athletes—such as improving social networks, athletic and personal life balance, team cohesion, and coach and team expectations—should be considered in conjunction with treatment for mental health symptoms and disorders,” (Reardon et al., 2019, 672). Along with treatment, athletes, or rather all individuals, need to have their own personal network. For athletes, it is their peers and teammates, their coaches, athletic directors, and fans, serving as majority of their network. These individuals are crucial in their treatment and providing support in various areas of their lives. In many cases, those we meet in college tend to become our lifelong friends, therefore by educating them and providing a safe place to gather and be together is important. Expectations set by coaching staff and athletic directions are imminent in setting boundaries and team cohesion. It can make or break a team, and it can cause unneeded added stress to individuals who may already have other mental health conditions. By providing psychoeducation to these important individuals in an athlete’s life by use of trainings, conversations, staffing, and briefing, it can truly change a life.

It is difficult to say that if all of these things were implemented into Madison’s life, would it have changed the outcome? Continuing to ask ourselves ‘why’ something happens is wasted time because it does nothing and therefore cannot be controlled. However, what we can control is the ‘how.’ Asking how we can implement change and how to better ourselves is the question that needs to be asked more often. After Madison’s death, the wall of the parking garage was surrounded with gifts, flowers, and an everlasting statement, “She had wings on,” and that she did.

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