Sad Reality of Social Media Mixed With Depression

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Photo by Jason A. Howie

I read this ESPN piece about the suicide of Penn Track athlete Madison Holleran and I thought there were a few pieces of the article that resonated with how I look at social media, and how we should, but also about how difficult it can be to cut through the fog of depression. Here’s the key bits with my own comments:

THE LIFE MADISON projected on her own Instagram feed was filled with shots that seemed to confirm everyone’s expectations: Of course she was loving her first year of college. Of course she enjoyed running. Her mom remembers looking at a photo on her feed and saying, “Madison, you look like you’re so happy at this party.”


“Mom,” Madison said. “It’s just a picture.”


Everyone presents an edited version of life on social media. People share moments that reflect an ideal life, an ideal self. Hundreds of years ago, we sent letters by horseback, containing only what we wanted the recipient to read. Fifty years ago, we spoke via the telephone, sharing only the details that constructed the self we wanted reflected.

As much as the media wants to portray social media as this “new” thing that is making people depressed, the reality is that we are using social media to do the same things we’ve always done, and those of us not dealing with the fog of mental illness can see that for what it is. Obviously, most people only post to sites like Facebook or Instagram when they have something “cool” to share. That might make it appear as though they are living great, fantastic lives that we aren’t, but “it’s just a picture”. It’s a snapshot of one moment, not a complete picture of every day life.

She seemed acutely aware that the life she was curating online was distinctly different from the one she was actually living. Yet she could not apply that same logic when she looked at the projected lives of others. Before going home for winter break, she asked Ingrid, who was also struggling at Penn, “What are you going to say when you go home to all your friends? I feel like all my friends are having so much fun at school.”

This is the fog of depression that I’m talking about. The inability to take logic that you know to be true, and apply it. Madison seems to have known that her own social media projection wasn’t the reality of her life, but looked at everyone else’s social media projections and assumed it was their reality, even after those same friends confirmed the truth to her.


Madison’s high school friends had told her they were also struggling. Emma Sullivan was running track at Boston College and having a hard time. Another friend, Jackie Reyneke, was playing basketball at Princeton and feeling overwhelmed. They had all shared some form of their struggles with Madison, yet in her mind, the lives her friends were projecting on social media trumped the reality they were privately sharing.


This confused them, and it still does.

There’s no making sense of the fog of depression. If logic applied, we wouldn’t be losing so many people, young and old, to it. The truth that many don’t understand is that you can’t look at a situation like this and assume you know what they were thinking or why she did what she did. We’ll never know. Depression kills by lying. By convincing it’s victims that they will never match up, that there is something fundamentally wrong with them that can never be overcome. Those of us who have never suffered from it, or suffered and overcome it, know that is simply not true. But to those in the midst of it, that truth can be little comfort. That truth is offset by the voice, the voice that tells you that you’re different and don’t have what it takes to overcome. By the sickness which makes every day a miserable struggle.

The other thing Madison’s story reminds us is that mental illness is individual. Not everyone suffering from depression is going react the same way, or show the same symptoms, which means that we should all really make an effort to be aware of what is really happening with the people around us. No one is immune from depression. Any one of us, or someone we love, could be suffering from depression right now, and need help.


As a family, they had never talked about suicide. Jim never considered it a real possibility — just the dramatic ending to someone else’s story. As Carli explains: “Other people battle depression for years. With Madison, it feels like one day she was happy, the next she was sad and the day after she was gone.”


Bill Schmitz Jr., former president of the American Association of Suicidology, points out that depression does not have a one-size-fits-all prognosis. “The course varies,” he says. “In a way, it’s the same as cancer. For some, we might prolong life for months, for years. For others, it can be very sudden.”

I can’t say this enough. If you are contemplating suicide or having suicidal thoughts, please, please get help. Call the suicide hotline in your country, reach out to trusted family and friends, call 911, do something other than listen to the voice in your head. You can overcome this, and you are not doomed to a life of miserable struggle. Your depression is lying to you!

I’m tired of reading these stories. I’m tired of seeing this sickness claim another victim. Let’s make it as easy, and acceptable, to get help for this illness as it is to get an antibiotic for other types of common illnesses!


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