Throughout the years, my family of four has affectionately coined a phrase that is near and dear to our hearts: F-cubed, F to the third, or in long hand, Forced Family Fun. You know exactly what I mean when I spell it out: the tandem family bike ride at the beach, the Friday night family game night, the family Cupcake Wars competition. Most often, my F-cubed suggestions are greeted with a nervous laugh and a sideways glance between my kids and husband. One of the Garrett Family’s (alright, my) most favorite reiterations of Forced Family Fun is Book Club. It is usually a book that I have been carting around with me on my travels to visit schools and attend conferences which often returns back to Charlotte without a single dog-eared page. This is not because I lost interest in the book, its importance, or its relevance, but because I got wrapped up in the vortex of living in the moment and didn’t find the time to tackle the book.
Fast forward to Spring Break 2018: both my kids are in college and both have decided that they would like to spend it with me. Seriously?!?! Immediately, my wheels start turning about the fun we’ll have together and my thoughts quickly turn to the stack of books that are teetering on my bedside table. Bingo! Family Book Club: Spring Break Edition. I debated about which route I would go with this one, but it didn’t take long for me to hone in on what I knew would be “the” book. While I provide academic advisement for students and families, it often goes beyond the academics as finding a place where our children can thrive emotionally and socially is equally as important, and I might argue more so.
What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen by Kate Fagan is a book that addresses the transition from high school to college and the hidden struggle that many young adults are dealing with, but often times can’t identify much less rectify. Although this story is about a college athlete, the emotions and challenges that she faces are the same for many college students everywhere. I will tell you that while I wanted to devour this book in one sitting, I found myself drifting off in thoughts about my own transition to college and most certainly my own children’s transitions to college which have had their fair share of bumps in the road. It has haunted me. I have cried a lot. Do I really know my kids? Would I have seen this coming?
Madison Holleran appears to have everything going her way-she is smart, popular, and has been recruited as an Ivy League scholar athlete to run for the University of Pennsylvania. She struggles with the transition to college and the feeling that she is expected to excel in all areas and be happy doing it, even if, in actuality, they are self imposed expectations. Madison ultimately takes her own life, leaving her family and friends blindsided and devastated. The author, an ESPN anchor, recounts Maddy’s time leading up to her death along with research regarding young adults, depression, anxiety, suicide, and the role of social media on their mental health.
As an adult, I have my own thoughts and opinions about this tragic outcome, but I know that it is the thoughts of our young people that matter most. To that end, the consensus from my young book club crew was this: “Although this book was more on the informative side than the story side, it brings up a lot of valid points regarding the transition to college and mental health. Specifically, it brings to light people saying that this ‘came out of nowhere,’ and upon further reflection you see that there were warning signs along the way. Most importantly, don’t take people’s comments or actions at face value- it makes us realize the need to acknowledge that many actions should not be dismissed without considering the deeper meaning or considering our peers’ motivations. It also made us consider the fact that people’s social media portrayal is often very different that how they see themselves internally. We need to be aware that most people are going through difficult times, even when it is not portrayed on their social media accounts.”
I can tell you that this book and the subject matter will stay with me forever, and unfortunately, I don’t have an immediate solution. However, what I can assure you is that this is something that I will continue to talk about and research while I work towards erasing the stigma around mental illness for these young adults. In the interim, I can educate students and parents about the resources that are available to help all of us through the transition to college: counseling and psychological services, learning resource support and support organizations for both students and parents.
As Kate Fagan eloquently stated, “But there is no one thing. There are rivers that merge and create a powerful current. And we can’t fully know why they all merged, right then, right there, around Maddy. Still, we can try to analyze each one, the way it bends and curves, what it into when it blends with another. We can do this, learn everything we can, how to talk to others about their pain or our own, in the hope that fewer people get caught is this same, fierce swirl.” One of the most effective ways to stop this swirl is to have open and honest communication with each other and with our children. We need to educate our children that life is not what people portray their lives to be on social media, that life is a series of peaks and valleys, and that we need to be aware of our own feelings and emotions as well as those of the people around us. One simple act of kindness could be a game changer for someone in your path.
Whatever it is, I hope you all find your own special version of Forced Family Fun this Spring Break. I would love to hear how you spend your time together or your thoughts on this book should you choose to read it. If you are interested in knowing what other books we have been reading regarding teen mental health and other topics, please click HERE.