Madison Holleran was the picture of a healthy, successful student. The photos she posted to her Facebook and Instagram accounts portrayed the University of Pennsylvania student as happy, active and popular.
Nothing in those photos of Holleran running at track meets, playing tennis with her father or posing with friends conveyed any of the struggle she was going through in her first year at university.
In January 2014, the 19-year-old jumped from the ninth storey of a parking garage in Philadelphia. She took her own life on the same day she had gone to class, taken a test and talked to her father on the phone.
Holleran’s life and death are the subject of a profile on the ESPN website this week, focusing on the way young people filter their online presence to the point where a serious mental health issue can show no trace.
Shalini Lal, a professor and research scientist at the University of Montreal specializing in adolescent mental health, said privacy and the stigma that persists about mental health are two main reasons why young people are reluctant to talk about any mental health issues on social media.
“Networks like Twitter … like Facebook, they have a public appearance,” said Lal. “To express that one is going through difficult times in their lives is still restrained by the issues of stigma.”
Everyone tends to express the happiest version of themselves on Facebook or Instagram, simply because some friends are closer than others, said Lal.
“We have public personas on these social media platforms,” says Lal. “So people may be comfortable expressing certain aspects of their lives with certain people, but not necessarily to 200 friends on Facebook.”
And when people do post about their depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, their friends may not know how to respond or what’s appropriate to say.
Lal says people need to look beyond traditional social media platforms when talking about helping young people who are struggling with mental health issues.
“There’s online forums that are specially designed for people who are experiencing various kinds of mental health concerns,” said Lal.
“Young people, more and more they are using this type of forum, online sites, social network websites to seek information about mental health concerns that they might be going through, as well as to seek peer support or other types of more professional support,” she said.
Along with their profile of Holleran, ESPN encouraged readers to talk about how much of their real selves is omitted from their online lives using the Twitter hashtag #LifeUnfiltered.
That echoes other social media campaigns aimed at removing the stigma of talking about mental health, such as #BellLetsTalk and similar campaigns at Canadian universities.
But Lal says it’s too soon to tell how effective such campaigns are at achieving their goal.
“I think it’s still a bit premature to speak to the effectiveness of these sorts of campaigns,” she said.
“I think we really need more research in this area … and also more research that speaks specifically and directly with young people who are the targets of these media campaigns, in terms of what helps them, what doesn’t help them,” said Lal.
One thing that does help is getting young people to connect to the right mental health services, Lal said. Navigating that link between seeking help in an online conversation to getting help in person can be challenging.
Lal said that making that journey easier is one way to help lift the social media filter.