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Kate Fagan and “Verona Face”

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The typical Verona High School student makes sure to stay involved, taking as many AP classes as possible, participating in varsity sports most seasons, and being a part of an array of clubs. They may also participate in extracurriculars outside of school.

Even being this involved, they feel pressure to maintain an above average GPA. No one might ever think that at times these students are actually overwhelmed with this alarming workload because they are probably wearing their Verona Face.

This refusal to outwardly share or show their daily stress was given a name recently when VHS students learned the story of a girl named Madison Holleran who fell victim to “Penn Face.”

Madison was a girl who had a bright future and was a star in track, on the soccer field, and in the classroom. But she found that the pressures of life as a student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania were too overwhelming, and in the second semester of her freshman year, took her own life.

Kate Fagan, long-time journalist at ESPN, came to VHS recently to lead an assembly about her book, What Made Maddie Run.  The book examines Madison’s story through the lenses of mental health and the impact of social media.

The assembly started off with a brief documentary piece that was released when Fagan had first come into contact with Madison’s story. In 2015, Fagan published an article titled “Split Image,”which was her first piece on Madison. The documentary references this article as it briefly tells Madison’s story.

Madison Holleran was destined for greatness, excelling both academically and athletically. A star soccer player, she received many offers to play at the collegiate level and even accepted one from Lehigh University. But with her dream of going to an Ivy League school, she found she could not reject the University of Pennsylvania’s offer to come to school there and run track.

College was more difficult than she had ever expected it to be. Struggling to balance school and track, she felt lost. Looking to find comfort in the fact that maybe her friends were also experiencing some of the same problems, she turned to Instagram. Instead she found pictures where they all looked happy, causing Madison to ask herself why she was the only one no longer having fun.

Fagan spoke of how historically one has had a private self, and a self one shares with friends and family. She then pointed out that until recently, only movie stars and celebrities had a third self – one they curate online for public consumption, their “brand.”  Now, she says, virtually everyone has this “third self.” Madison struggled greatly with this, not realizing that the image she had been putting forward of herself was the exact same of her friends and that social media was not really a way to gauge anyone’s happiness.

Fagan noted how social media consumes people, as everyone tries to represent themselves in the best way possible. Everyone only posts the pictures they look the best and happiest in, which doesn’t show anyone’s true self.  

Madison felt that maybe track was the problem and tried to quit. When she approached the coach with her feeling of being overwhelmed, the coach gave her the option to leave but told her that her spot on the team would always be saved. Madison interpreted this as her not being able to quit.

With her inability to find happiness, Madison’s shift in personality became noticeable. With friends and family being concerned, Madison began seeing a therapist. She was diagnosed as depressed and admitted to suicidal thoughts.

Though Madison was in counseling, when her private torment became overwhelming she jumped from the top of a parking garage in Philadelphia near her school’s campus, after leaving at the site gifts for her family as well as a picture of herself from happier days. 

Fagan’s initial coverage of Madison’s story received mass amounts of attention. With many young people emailing her telling her that Madison’s story really resonated with them, she knew that her article was much bigger than she had anticipated.

Fagan knew she had to cover this story on a larger scale, inspiring her to write her book, in which she focuses on how mental health is impacted by social media.

During the assembly, Fagan told VHS students the importance of being mentally healthy. College, she said, has the reputation of being the best four years of everyone’s lives, and so it is difficult to to deal with the hardships that come with being away from one’s family for the first time and feeling the pressure to succeed.

Near the end of the assembly students also had the opportunity to ask Fagan questions. Topics of the questions ranged from mental health issues to how taking on this story has impacted her personally.

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Kate Fagan and “Verona Face”