Kate Fagan, an ESPN writer, panelist and author of the book “What Made Maddy Run,” talked to Lehigh students on Oct. 22 about the importance of prioritizing mental health during college.
Fagan, who played basketball for the University of Colorado, was able to directly address the student-athletes in the room, who formed the majority of the crowd.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life was play college sports and I don’t think it’s something I’d ever do again,” Fagan said.
Fagan thinks college athletic departments do not have enough conversations about the stresses that come with being a student-athlete.
“We’re at a crucial point now, and we need to talk about it and…not just because we are worried about student athletes or students who may have suicidal thoughts, but also because we might want to make the college experience more enjoyable for a broader range of students,” Fagan said.
Fagan’s book centered on the story of Madison Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania runner who committed suicide as a result of mental illnesses that stemmed from today’s perfectionist, social media-driven society.
“Hearing (Fagan) speak about Madison (Holleran) was moving because she not only talked about her story but created a conversation for Lehigh athletes about mental health,” said Courtney Henig, ’19, a member of the women’s lacrosse team. “I definitely agree with it (because it) is a topic that’s commonly forgotten about in the athletic world.”
When she first heard Holleran’s story, Fagan instantly wanted to share it and spread awareness about mental health as a whole. She wrote “Split Image,” an ESPN feature article recounting Holleran’s life.
She did not anticipate the magnitude of the response she received. Fagan said she immediately started receiving emails with questions from students about topics ranging from Holleran’s story to perfectionism and suicide.
Many athletes said they saw pieces of themselves in Holleran’s story.
Fagan soon realized that this topic needed to be addressed and was inspired to write “What Made Maddy Run.”
Fagan addressed two aspects of technology that can have negative effects on mental health.
First, digital communication, specifically text messaging, has created a screen barrier for people like Holleran to hide how they’re really feeling. According to Fagan’s “Split Image” article, Holleran often reached out to friends and family via text messages saying she was unhappy, but was unable to communicate her true feelings.
Fagan also addressed the ability to alter one’s identity using social media.
“There is the simple notion that nobody’s life on social media is an actual reflection on their day-to-day life,” Fagan explained.
In today’s digital age, people have the ability to create a version of themselves on social media for mass consumption, which Fagan said does not always accurately represent them.
Fagan said this phenomenon existed in Holleran’s Instagram page, which was filled with “happy photos” with her friends, beautiful photos of sunsets and more. All of these posts would lead many to perceive that she was not struggling with mental health issues.
“When she was talking about how happy (Holleran) seemed over Instagram, it made me realize how people can seem so happy when they actually aren’t,” said Kate Quinn, ’19, a member of the women’s lacrosse team. “People can hide behind their social media and it’s really upsetting.”
Fagan said mental health issues in athletes, specifically for Holleran, often come from their perfectionist attitudes.
“The way that (Holleran) addressed perfectionism, according to her family, was this idea that success is always one step in front of the other and she always had to be getting better,” Fagan said. “She always thought there was this linear method of improvement in her life.”
Many athletes are attached to the idea of steady and constant improvement and when it stops, Fagan said they feel like they’re letting themselves down.
“As an athlete have actual measurable (goals), especially in track and field and cross country,” Fagan said. “All of a sudden your identity is attached to your performance.”
Fagan said attaching one’s identity to performance is one of the unhealthiest things Fagan said an athlete, or anyone, can do you can do.
In her book, Fagan discussed a sermon, “The Art of Imperfection,” that was sent to her by the producer of Around the Horn, a television show on ESPN.
Fagan highlighted the importance of one line from the sermon in regards to perfectionism, athletics and mental health.
“For those of us in the room who think that pushing yourself to the max is the best version of yourself, I think keeping in mind that quote is really important, opposed to mythologizing perfectionism,” she said.
Fagan said perfectionism in athletics can often seem positive, however, many fail to understand there is a downside if an athlete can no longer reach the level of perfection they strive for.
Fagan concluded with one last piece of advice: to make conversations about mental health, perfectionism and anxiety more frequent and meaningful, especially in sports culture, where mental health issues are often viewed as a form of weakness that can stand in the way of a team’s ability to achieve greatness
“It starts with realizing that success doesn’t look like ‘we all run a sprint at the same time’ or ‘we all work out every single day of the week,’” Fagan said. “If teammates are taking a time out or taking a pause, it will be a lot better if we’re willing to do that for each other.”