Sports journalist Kate Fagan returns to her home state to discuss mental health

‘Life Instagrammed’ talk aimed especially at student athletes

This story originally was published in the Warwick Beacon, a publication partner of Ocean State Stories.

WARWICK — Warwick Veterans Middle School welcomed award-winning sports journalist Kate Fagan for “Life Instagrammed” on Wednesday, Dec. 6 – a talk on social media, perfectionism and mental health, particularly as it relates to sports.

Fagan, who was born in Warwick, is a journalist for Meadowlark Media, and was previously a panelist on ESPN’s show “Around the Horn” and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s beat writer for the Philadelphia 76ers. While working in Philadelphia at ESPN she heard the story of Madison Holleran, a track and field and cross-country athlete at the University of Pennsylvania who took her own life.

Kate Fagan – Submitted photp

“What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen,” released in 2017, was a #1 New York Times bestseller. It tells the story of Holleran, and takes an in-depth examination of the different factors that caused her 2014 suicide. Throughout the book, and throughout her talk, Fagan examined the differences between image and reality, the athletic and academic pressures Holleran was feeling and how social media has exacerbated these issues.

Fagan said she started by trying to find out the “why” of Holleran’s suicide. Holleran’s best friend told her that engaging in trying to complete the whole picture of Holleran’s decision was fruitless.

“Right at the beginning, she was like, ‘You’re going to do this thing where you think you’re going to be able to find the why. I know you’re going to do this because it’s what all of us did in the days and weeks following Maddy’s death,’” Fagan said. “Of course, I didn’t listen to Emma, and I spent the first few months just thinking, maybe something, I just don’t know what that something could be. An assault, or a drug test, or something like that. And I knew why I was doing it, and I know why we do it in general, because it feels better to say ‘Oh, ok, it was an assault or drugs at this time,’ and it just feels like you can point to that.”

Initially, Fagan reported Holleran’s story as a journalistic piece for espnW. Following the story’s release, she received an unexpected outpouring of emails from high school and college athletes, including one reading,  “I am Madison, but I’m still with us,” that convinced her that she needed to make Holleran’s story into a book.

Throughout the process of writing the book, Fagan was given access to Holleran’s computer and text messages by her parents, and found what she considered to be evidence of both her trying to reach out and her hiding just how much pain she was feeling.

“She was doing research [into clubs to join shortly before her suicide], and she downloaded a number of icons onto her desktop- one was the Penn Fashion Collective, one was Penn Improv, and another was Active Minds,” Fagan said. “Over the course of a few days, her friends had texted her ‘What clubs are you going to join?’ and she kept going, Penn Fashion Club, Penn Improv. Penn Fashion Club, Penn Improv. Not one person was told Active Minds.”

Fagan also talked about the role social media played in Holleran’s decision, noting that she believed she was the only person going through the struggles of adjusting to college due to only seeing positive posts from friends. Included in Holleran’s laptop was the final photo she had posted on Instagram hours before she committed suicide- as well as the six or seven other versions of the photo that she chose not to post.

Fagan noted that in essence, social media was a performance of oneself for others to see, or creating an alternate self. According to her, for years, people only had to deal with two selves- their true, innermost self, and the self that they are around family and friends. Social media has added a third “self” to the list- one that people perform publicly to others on social media, and one that many people struggle with.

“Historically, the only people who have had to deal with a third division of self are celebrities,” Fagan said. “Today, whether you have 82 followers or 82 million, you are still dealing with that third performance of self.”

Kristin Murray, Warwick Public Schools’ social-emotional learning coordinator, said that “Life Instagrammed” was an important opportunity for students to realize how social media can negatively affect their mental health, and how to reach out to improve it.

“We often see what’s posted to be what we think everyone else’s life looks like,” Murray said. “And I just want [students] to realize that it isn’t that, that’s not really the case.”

Fagan’s aunt, Christine Dowding, is a social studies teacher at Winman Middle School. When Murray was first told about the opportunity to bring Fagan for a talk, she quickly realized that Fagan’s expertise- and Holleran’s story- was something that should be open for the entire district to hear, organizing the event in Vets’ auditorium instead.

Kate Fagan and students – Submitted photo

“I hope that because she’s someone that was in the sports world, someone that’s very accomplished, that her story that she tells really rings for some of them, thinking ‘I need to be aware of this,’” Murray said.

Speaking prior to Fagan were members of Varsity Athletes Above Substance Abuse (VAASA), who discussed being a role model for younger students, and how to prioritize good mental health habits while at school.

“Be yourself,” Amanda Preston, a Toll Gate High School senior on the field hockey, basketball and volleyball teams, said. “You shouldn’t have to impress anyone, and you shouldn’t have to change to be friends with anyone, because that shows they probably won’t be a good friend to have in the long run.”

In attendance at the event were multiple organizations relating to mental health, as well as Ashley Gargano, a licensed therapist, to answer any questions about her field. Michael Fratus, Warwick Health and Equity Zone Director, said that being able to make connections and have these resources, even if a student isn’t struggling with their mental health at the time, can help them in the future or help them with friends who may be struggling.

Fagan said that she hopes that her speech helped convince audience members to open up more with loved ones about difficult topics of conversation, and to help people get help if they need it.

“We’re talking about trying to open up conversations that you might not know how to open up,” Fagan said. “If you have somebody’s story, it can often be helpful.”

Anyone in immediate danger should call 911.

Call 988 if you are having thoughts of suicide or are in crisis. 988 is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

Other resources:

● BHLink: For confidential support and to get connected to care, call (401) 414-LINK (5465) or visit the BHLink 24-hour/7-day triage center at 975 Waterman Ave., East Providence. Website: bhlink.org

● The Samaritans of Rhode Island: (401) 272-4044 or (800) 365-4044. Website: samaritansri.org

● The Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 “from anywhere in the USA, anytime, about any type of crisis.”

● Butler Hospital Behavioral Health Services Call Center: Available 24/7 “to guide individuals seeking advice for themselves or others regarding suicide prevention.” (844) 401-0111