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Lessons from Madison Holleran: Prioritizing Student Mental Health

“The loss of Madison Holleran is truly a great one. As a senior, I looked up to Madison for her athletic ability and unfailing kindness. Moving forward I will continue to look up to her, especially to bring me through that last 200m of our shared 800m race.”

Such are the words of Ariana Tabatabaie, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and teammate of Holleran, who committed suicide last Friday.  Holleran, a New Jersey native and freshman at UPenn, jumped off a parking garage in Center City, Philadelphia, and was pronounced dead at 7 pm. She was 19.

Among the influx of responses to this event are addled feelings of grief, shock, and, as is common with instances of suicide, incredulity.  Those who knew Holleran personally describe her as exceptionally talented, yet modest, and unfailingly cheerful and upbeat, even in the midst of strenuous track workouts.  According to friends and family, Holleran had been struggling with depression during her first year of college.  Yet her struggles were deeper than she conveyed.

As we heal from this tragic event, more effective measures must be taken to prevent others from succumbing to the suffering involved with mental illness. Discussing mental health issues is still taboo and it can be uncomfortable for both the person suffering and their friends and family. Characteristics such as perfectionism and obsessiveness frequently accompany those coping with the range of mental illnesses, as well as an acute ability to suppress or devalue one’s own emotions. These conditions, however, have surreptitiously encroached into and negatively affected the lives of too many students.  And they must be openly discussed and explicitly addressed.

Tom Donnelly, currently in his 39th season of coaching Haverford’s men’s cross-country and track teams, is forthright on his views concerning mental illness.  Growing up in a traditional Irish Catholic environment, Donnelly was taught to quietly tough it out in difficult times.  This is often the mentality of many present day student-athletes, and Donnelly emphasizes the need to look into yourself and reach out to those who are close to you when you are suffering.

“Start with yourself—write it down and ask: why am I doing this?  And then don’t be afraid to turn to someone–whether it be your best friend, partner, or teacher–to let them know that you are struggling.”

In terms of providing a reliable support network, Donnelly credited the Customs program at Haverford and the personal relationships that students are able to form with professors as reasons that set Haverford apart from other institutions.

“The quality of kids and the quality of faculty has never wavered,” he stated, “But day-to-day engagement is imperative, just to make sure that everyone is doing all right.”

When asked why he believed such a large portion of students encounter these pressures while at university, especially athletes, Donnelly offered that it is a fault of the schools, many of which need to reprioritize.

“Colleges get too easily caught up in ratings and maintaining their rank,” he lamented.  “You’ve got to just be what you are. Everything else comes out in the wash.”

Although seemingly characteristic within the environment of select top-notch universities, the unrealistic and all-consuming pressure of being infallible is in no way normal, and the variety of mental health issues surrounding these demands should not be stigmatized.  More worthwhile values must be given precedence and pursued within many of the nation’s educational institutions, and the various resources for seeking help should be better publicized and provided.

Asking for help does not show weakness or failure.  It is a pivotal step towards recovery, embracing one’s self, and accepting that there are things in life outside of one’s own control.

One Comment

  1. Board Monitor February 23, 2014

    I try always to keep my children grounded in reality. The reality IS that their looks are NOT who they are. Their GPA is NOT who they are and that most of what they will learn will come AFTER schooling. Having a longterm perspective is important and understanding that years from now, nobody will care about whether you got an “A” or a “B” or were an athletetic star or debating championion! We are putting waaaay to much pressure on these kids when we should simply listen to them and learn WHO they REALLY are. We ought NOT try to be thier friend while raising them, and in exchange you can be friends after they grow up. Even then, mental depression can still occur even in the nicest of people. We do the best we can and hopefully we help the next generation…NOT pressure them!

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