It’s funny how life can come full circle sometimes.
The summer after my freshman year, in 2015, I’d just seen the New York Times piece “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection” circulating on Facebook. And I’d just read about Madison Holleran, the UPenn track star with a flawless social media presence who’d committed suicide, much to everyone’s dismay and disbelief, in Kate Fagan’s ESPN digital magazine piece, “Split Image.”
But five other Penn students had taken their lives that same year, none of whom had received the same attention, let alone media attention, that Madison had. I was struck by the fact that no one was talking about this, so I wrote about it, exploring the question of what makes one’s life – or rather, taking one’s own life – newsworthy.
Just one week ago, almost three years later, Fagan came to Princeton and brought me full circle. I was able to speak with her in a intimate roundtable discussion with several athletes. Fagan, a female journalist, reflected on pushing a university’s boundaries to seek out the answers and stories around mental health and a toxic culture that she wanted to share with a wider audience.
The experience was surreal. Her candor was refreshing, her passion contagious, her empathy welcome.
Fagan called herself a storyteller, instead of a journalist or reporter, because people listen to stories; that resonated with me because that was why I, too, had been drawn to journalism years ago. And she’s not wrong; people listened to Madison’s story. But there are so many stories that have not been told; I pointed that out three years ago in my column, and again to her in person – stories and lives at UPenn, here on our own campus, especially those of athletes, persons of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, students struggling with mental health issues and unseen disabilities. I get it; it’s not an easy subject to broach. And Princeton doesn’t want to talk about it, for fear of attaining a reputation such as that of UPenn, Cornell, or UChicago.
It’s uncomfortable. But it’s necessary. It is so important. Performing in — and watching — the Me Too Monologues, particularly for those watching whose pieces were selected to be performed, is painfully uncomfortable. But it’s initiatives like these that encourage these uneasy conversations. I’ve just been wondering for the past four years how we can encourage the administration to do the same.
I, and so many other students and alumni, have been fighting for institutional change for years, far before my freshman year. We’ve seen some of it come to fruition, other aspects not so much – at least, not yet. We all know it takes time and patience for institutions to progress.
But as Fagan told us, change here has to come from a cultural level, not institutional. Institutional change will come only if we first realize work on changes interpersonally, in how we approach and treat each other.
Yes, we need more funding and resources. Yes, we need a way to interface with the Trustees, to establish a student liaison to keep them abreast of how students feel and what they need, to present an unequivocal need for more support. But we need to reframe this narrative. I come to you as a jaded, but hopeful, senior, with one month before I graduate from Princeton. I ask you – no, I beg you – to consider how you can engender some of this change. One student really can make a difference in changing our campus culture; no one should have to suffer in silence.
Of course, I would be remiss in my discussion to not acknowledge the costs of social media, which lies at the crux of Fagan’s writing and at our notorious culture of “suffering in silence.” I raise this point not as a hypocritical, notorious user of social media, but as an honest one. As I contemplated posting a picture with her (with none other than the “wcw” hashtag), Fagan gave me pause. Doing so would be completely antithetical to her main takeaway, her asking of us to consider the costs we incur — and the people around us incur — in the ways we engage with social media. She encouraged a “reckoning” with ourselves about how Facebook, Finstagrams (and “Rinstagrams” — fake and real Instagrams, respectively) and Twitter can play with us on a subconscious level.
I had my own reckoning choosing a “PTL” photo of myself to post to Facebook; I was proud, and I wanted to share that pride with my friends, former teachers, and family, but then I thought about those friends who still had yet to turn in their theses. I thought back to all those status updates about where we’ll be next year and what we’ll be doing, the statuses about the fellowships we didn’t get, the salaries we could never even conceive of.
Yes, social media can be a tool for good; technology has engendered incredible positive social and political change. I saw it first hand with protests in Iran back in 2009 (and again in 2018), and right here with photo campaigns around mental health in 2014 and 2016, and gun reform in 2018. Social media has enabled the remarkable flow and exchange of ideas, knowledge, and news, created a platform for sharing personal narratives, and engaged communities far and wide.
But it’s addictive, and as such, is toxic, and we all too often fail to critically consider the costs. A perfectly curated presence is highly coveted. Loved ones and classmates took Madison Holleran’s flawless social media presence for granted, and I still hear comments like, “But she looked so happy!” or “He had everything,” when someone we knew — or at least, thought we knew — takes their own life.
As I leave this place, I come full circle. I’m back to Madison, Chester, Wonshik, Audrey. Now, I pass along the fight to decrease stigma and increasing support to current students, which is far from over. But I implore each and every one of you, to ask people how they’re doing (really doing), to actually listen to the answer, and to make time for those you love; I promise you, your work will get done. But it can wait. I implore you to recognize your individual responsibility to speak up if you notice something in a friend or classmate, to educate yourselves, to open up honest conversations, before you — or someone you love — gets hurt. I implore you to advocate for the changes we need institutionally, in your own life.
Sarah Sakha is editor-in-chief emerita of The Daily Princetonian from Scottsdale, Ariz. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.