Continuing the race

Sister of Ivy League track star advocates for mental health awareness

Ashley Pelletier, Arts & Life Editor

By all accounts, Madison Holleran looked like she had a perfect life. But on Jan. 17, 2014, she killed herself.

Eight years, two months and three weeks later, Holleran’s older sister, Carli Bushoven, visited Quinnipiac University to tell the story of Holleran’s struggle with perfectionism.

Quinnipiac Health and Wellness and the women’s ice hockey team came together in the Mount Carmel auditorium April 7, to host Bushoven from the Madison Holleran Foundation, a nonprofit Holleran’s family started shortly after her death to advocate for mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

Holleran was a star track and field and soccer athlete in high school. She studied hard and earned good grades. When she started at University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, in 2013, she became one of many students who were the best and brightest in their hometowns.

Mental health advocate Carli Bushoven spoke about her sister’s struggle with perfectionism as a student athlete. (Nicole McIsaac)

However, being one of many who were on top wasn’t enough for Holleran, and that took a toll on her.

“That was something that I think Madison had a really hard time with,” Bushoven said. “A lot of people who are these high-achieving perfectionists are the ones who really suffer from mental illness.”

Throughout her first semester at UPenn, Holleran’s mental health worsened. The transition from high school to college overwhelmed her, leaving her struggling with anxiety and depression, which is why the Madison Holleran Foundation aims to help high school and college students through turbulent times in their lives.

During her presentation, Bushoven stressed above all else the importance of looking beyond the facade of perfection that college students are taught to create. Bushoven said Holleran curated her image on social media up until the moment she died, but that image covered up the cracks in her mental foundation. Like Holleran once told her mother, Stacy — “It’s just a picture.”

“She was beautiful, she was athletic, she was smart. She went to an Ivy League school. She had a lot of friends. She had a good family life,” Bushoven said. “It’s not just the people who are bullied or who have a hard time making friends (that struggle with mental health issues). A lot of people can relate to her and her story because yes, while it seems like we might have everything going for us in life, we can still struggle.”

Holleran’s story particularly resonates with student athletes. Gabby Vitelli, a senior management major and defenseman for the women’s ice hockey team, said that perfectionism is a double-sided trait that many student athletes have.

“(Holleran) was a perfectionist and as athletes especially, you’re always striving to be perfect,” Vitelli said. “You wanna be the best you can possibly be, which can be such a good trait, but it can also hurt you.”

Vitelli and the rest of the team said they learn from struggles like Holleran’s by working with a sports psychologist and having open conversations as a team to address mental and physical health.

“We really do prioritize our mental health through our faculty,” Vitelli said. “Everyone on our team is very aware of it. Especially as college athletes and the demand on us, we know the importance of taking care of yourself. We train every day and focus on our muscles, but also our mental health. That’s just as important.”

Kathryn Deluca, a senior entry-level master’s physician assistant major, has known Holleran’s story for years because they were from New Jersey alike. In preparation for the event, she read Kate Fagan’s book “What Made Maddy Run,” which started as an ESPN article detailing how Holleran’s Instagram photos “hid the reality of someone struggling to go on.”

“I always wanted to read the book, but I never did,” Deluca said. “Then I heard that her sister was coming to speak, so I took it out of the library and I literally read it in two days because it was so amazing and I was so inspired.”

Katie Kelly, a graduate student in the 4+3 physical therapy program and graduate assistant for the Health and Wellness department, said partnering with the women’s ice hockey team to bring Bushoven to campus was a worthwhile decision.

“It only makes sense to partner with them and get someone with the same goal in mind,” Kelly said. “I just love the way that she approached the topic of mental health and the way that she went about sharing her sister. I think she made it relatable and a little scary, and that’s why we decided to get her.”