The Tragic Life of an Influencer: Lee MacMillan

Lee MacMillan quickly grew a following on social media for sharing her travels around the world in her van. She always seemed so happy, especially while posting videos with her ex-boyfriend Max Bidstrup as they took adventures with their dog Occy. However, the couple split in 2020, so MacMillan took a break from posting.

Lee MacMillan / Lee MacMillan / Lee MacMillan / Lee MacMillan
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

She returned to YouTube, updating her followers about her mental health, trying new activities, and dating. MacMillan found a shiny new van to resume her travels, but her mental health struggles took over her life. Her story is a reminder that people’s lives aren’t always as they appear online.

A Shared Love for Traveling

When Lee MacMillan met Australian native Max Bidstrup in Canada, she never imagined how radically it would change her life. Bidstrup was in Canada for a work trip in 2016 when he struck up a conversation with MacMillan. The two shared a love of traveling and discussed embarking on a worldwide expedition.

A portrait of Lee MacMillan.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

They decided to go on a trip to southeast Asia, and after five weeks, the couple returned to Canada. MacMillan and Bidstrup enjoyed traveling together so much, so they thought about renovating a camper van to take longer trips. The two purchased a 2006 Dodge Sprinter for $12,300.

Hitting the Road

MacMillan and Bidstrup spent nearly the same amount to restore and upgrade the van. Once it was finished, the couple hit the road in September 2016. They started in North America before crossing into Mexico. They passed through a total of 13 borders. Meanwhile, they documented their travels on Instagram.

Max, Lee and their Australian Shepherd Occy in South America.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

They created a shared account called MaxandLee_ and quickly gained thousands of followers. Bidstrup brought along his Australian Shepherd, Occy, who enjoyed life on the go and running around in different countries. Fans loved watching their vlogs about their van life and visiting new places on YouTube, where they gained 500,000 subscribers.

They Seemed Happy

The couple spent three years traveling across 16 countries. MacMillan and Bidstrup drove from Canada to the tip of South America, and they looked like they had so much fun together. They frequently posted adorable photos in picturesque locations that made people envious of their adventurous life.

Max, Lee and Occy in their van.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

Although traveling was their passion, things didn’t always go as planned. Their beloved dog was once attacked on a beach in Costa Rica. The moment was terrifying, but he survived. MacMillan and Bidstrup also shared the moment they surprised his brother in Australia, who had just had a baby. People only saw the happy times.

Off the Beaten Path

MacMillan and Bidstrup’s travels took them to untouched areas, away from crowds of tourists. Their videos and photos showed places people didn’t even know existed. The couple drove 50,000 miles to travel across the Lagunas route, which took them across mountains and barren landscapes that left others in awe.

Max and Lee are out hiking.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

The route took MacMillan and Bidstrup to an elevation of 16,400 ft as they crossed 400 km of barren landscape through the Andes mountains from Bolivia to Chile. The two were adventurous and were never afraid to try new things. They went cage diving with great white sharks and bathed with elephants.

Exciting Adventures

When the couple embarked on their van trip, they drove through the US, stopping to visit the Havasu Canyon in Arizona. The couple then drove to San Diego, where they stopped for a week to take a break from traveling after three months in the van.

Lee poses outside her van.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

When they got to Mexico, MacMillan and Bidstrup spent six months taking Spanish lessons and celebrated Christmas on the beach. They worked with a local charity to save sea turtles and used their growing following to talk about the cause.

A Close Call

As MacMillan and Bidstrup headed toward South America, they stopped in Guatemala. The two took photos in front of the Fuego Volcano just days before it erupted in June 2018. It was a close call, but they told worried followers that they were safe.

Max and Occy pose with an active volcano.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

They stayed in the area to visit villages close to the eruption and donated medical supplies and money to those affected. MacMillan took a break from traveling to visit her family in Canada, rejoining Bidstrup in Costa Rica. They told followers they felt “complete again.”

Everything Seemed Fine

After traveling to Australia to surprise his family, Bidstrup and MacMillan returned to their van life in Columbia. They drove to Ecuador to surf in crystal clear waters and volunteered at an organic farm. MacMillan posted photos of the couple with a group of sea lions.

Lee is on the beach with her dog.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

Everything seemed fine between the couple as they visited the Galapagos Islands, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. However, during their trek to Patagonia in Chile, MacMillan posted about her mental health on their Instagram page. She shared her struggles with their followers in an honest post.

Sharing Her Struggles

MacMillan wrote about her mental health on Instagram, saying, “I have been struggling with my own insecurities and uncertainties, and it has been causing me feelings of anxiety and depression.” She wanted to be open because she had compared herself to others on the platform.

Lee MacMillan is working on her campervan.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

MacMillan said she would look at other people’s lives on social media and think they were perfect while she continued to struggle. It led to the couple announcing they would end their travels after almost three years to spend time with their family and friends.

Shocking Their Fans

When MacMillan and Bidstrup posted about going home to be with family, their followers assumed they would split their time between Canada and Australia so they could still be together. However, they shocked fans when they posted in January 2020 that they had broken up.

A photo of Max and Lee.
Source: Twitter

The two wrote, “Sadly though, despite going through so much together, and trying so damn hard, some things don’t always work out, no matter how much you want them to. We are very sorry to announce the next chapter of our lives will not be one experienced together.”

They Continued Posting

Although they ended their relationship, MacMillan and Bidstrup created separate accounts to share their individual ventures. Bidstrup continued traveling with Occy, and MacMillan spent time with her family in Canada. She resumed her separate travels and opened up about her mental health.

Lee is on a surfboard with Occy in the ocean.
Source: Tumblr

At the beginning of 2020, MacMillan shared her challenges with anxiety and depression. She wrote about working on herself and the ups and downs of her new journey. She took a break from social media for a few months, returning to Instagram in September 2020.

Being Honest

When MacMillan started posting again, many fans wondered why she had stopped posting for four months. She shared an honest post explaining why she needed time away from social media. MacMillan admitted that she felt hopeless and wanted the pain to end.

MacMillan is doing yoga at home.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

She sought help for her mental health because it became unbearable. MacMillan wrote, “I was in hopeless despair, and in so much pain I couldn’t take it any longer. I didn’t think I would make it through.” She shared what many others had also felt.

A New Relationship

In November 2020, MacMillan shared the news that she had started dating someone new. She introduced her boyfriend, Jordan Chiu, to her Instagram followers. MacMillan said she had been keeping it a secret because she was afraid of the mean comments people might write.

Lee is giving Jordan a kiss on the cheek.
Source: Instagram/@jordanpchiu

MacMillan and Chiu met in Bolivia while he was traveling with his girlfriend. The two remained friends for a year, and after he broke up with his girlfriend, Chui and MacMillan started dating. MacMillan said she was happy and in love.

Learning to Take Breaks

One thing MacMillan was honest about was dealing with social media trolls. People would write mean things about her in the comments because they could hide behind their computers. As MacMillan worked on her mental health, she learned to ignore them and take breaks.

Lee is swinging in a hammock.
Source: Twitter

MacMillan would share that she sometimes felt overwhelmed, and taking time away from social media helped her find peace. She also knew she needed time to unplug and be present. MacMillan shared this with her followers, who could relate to her struggles.

Signs of Trouble

In a post from the end of January 2021, MacMillan wrote, “I’ve been feeling off, low energy, and quite anxious this week. I’m still getting used to putting myself out there again, and the truth is, I had an empty cup with nothing to pour.”

MacMillan is having a drink while at a cabin.
Source: Facebook

MacMillan shared that she needed to listen to her body because she was breaking down. She seemed to be coping well by taking time to rest and do some self-care. She stopped posting for two weeks to focus on healing and recharging.

She Disappeared

MacMillan was very open about her struggles but had been seeking help to improve her mental health. However, in late March 2021, police issued an alert because MacMillan went missing. She left her car, keys, wallet, and cell phone at home.

A portrait of Lee MacMillan.
Source: YouTube

She had been living with Chiu in Santa Barbara, California, and he worried about what could have happened to her. He called her family and the police to report MacMillan missing. Her family quickly grew concerned because MacMillan had had suicidal thoughts in the past.

The Worst Outcome

Sadly, MacMillan had already made a decision when she left her house and belongings behind. On March 26, 2021, she chose to end her life. Police found MacMillan after she was hit and killed by a train in Santa Barbara.

Lee MacMillan poses with a dog.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

Although she didn’t leave a note, police believed MacMillan’s death was self-inflicted because she was dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. She couldn’t take the pain anymore and took drastic measures to stop those feelings. MacMillan reached the point where she felt it was her only option.

The Sad Truth

Following MacMillan’s death, Bidstrup posted on their shared account announcing the sad news. He wrote, “After living an extraordinary life and fighting a brave battle with depression, our hearts are shattered to share that Lee took her life on Friday.” Everyone was heartbroken over the loss.

Max and Lee pose with Occy behind their van.
Source: Twitter

Along with his tribute to her, Bidstrup also said he never stopped loving MacMillan. He used the post to spread awareness about mental health, sharing that MacMillan was receiving help from professionals, family, and friends. She was not alone, but no one knew how deep it was.

She Was Loved

So many people loved MacMillan, including Chiu. He shared a tribute to her, writing, “You were a dream beyond my wildest dreams. Every day with you was an adventure, and I hope wherever you are, you’ve found peace and snuggles.”

Jordan and Lee are a\t a vineyard.
Source: Facebook

There was an outpouring of comments on her page and the shared page showing love and support for MacMillan’s family and friends. People wrote how much she had helped them by being honest with her struggles. If only she could have seen in herself what everyone thought about her.

It Contributed to Her Problems

When the pandemic began, MacMillan’s depression got worse. Her father said being isolated from everyone contributed to her mental health struggles. He shared, “She hasn’t been depressed all her life. Lee was a people person – she loved to be around others – Covid made that difficult.”

A selfie of Lee and her father.
Source: Facebook

Chiu sent a video of MacMillan to her family the day she died. Her father, Wil, thought she looked good, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Chiu said MacMillan went for a swim because that was something he challenged her to do every day.

They Had Plans

MacMillan’s death shocked everyone because they didn’t think she would take her own life. Chui said she had plans for the day, and they planned to get their Covid vaccine on Saturday. MacMillan’s sister, Sasha, had spoken to her the night before.

Sasha amd Lee attend a game.
Source: Facebook

Sasha and MacMillan spoke about planning Sasha’s bachelorette party. MacMillan was going to be the maid of honor. It made her death that much harder because they started to wonder how they could have prevented MacMillan’s death. But there was nothing more they could have done.

Her Family Spread Awareness

MacMillan’s family was devastated by the loss of the influencer. They created a GoFundMe to raise money to start a foundation “to promote mental health awareness and to combat cyberbullying.” They turned her Instagram into a tribute page to remember MacMillan.

A post mad by Lee’s family to raise awareness.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

Although she was gone, her family continued posting on her Instagram to raise awareness with the message, “Speak up for Lee.” They hoped to use her story to end the stigma around mental health and suicide. Her family knew MacMillan would want them to keep spreading her message.

Her Father Spoke Up

After MacMillan and Bidstrup broke up, cyberbullies and trolls began targeting the 28-year-old. Following her death, MacMillan’s father and sister spoke up about the problem. Her father, Wil, said MacMillan was the target of an online commentator who profited from “roasting” her in a video.

Polaroids of Lee, her father, and her sister.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

Wil added, “He started the narrative and posted a video two days before she took her own life.” People would hide behind their screens to say awful things about MacMillan even though they didn’t know her full story. The commentator’s followers piled on with insults about MacMillan.

Not the Full Story

MacMillan might have opened her life to the world by posting on social media, but no one deserves to receive such hateful comments. Many people forget that influencers are only human, and there is much more to their lives than what we see online.

MacMillan poses inside her campervan.
Source: YouTube

Wil said, “With Lee and YouTube, you got a 20-minute glimpse of what they wanted you to see, but you don’t get the full story.” Vlogs can be edited only to show the positive moments, and even though MacMillan was open about her health, no one online truly knew her.

It’s Not Easy

Although being an influencer seems like an easy job, it’s not, especially for those who suffer from mental illness. Instagram has been ranked the worst social media platform in terms of detriment to mental health by many research organizations. People only share the highlights of their lives.

Lee is working on her laptop outside.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

Many people compare themselves to people on Instagram because it seems they have perfect lives, but that’s far from the truth. The platform doesn’t build authentic connections but degrades people into a number, like, or view, not an actual person.

Stuck With a Persona

MacMillan was branded as an “influencer,” as if her worth and sense of self were only derived from her Instagram account. She might have shared her struggles with mental health, but she was stuck to her online persona because it was her job.

Lee poses in the back of her campervan.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

Her income depended on how much content she could produce and on keeping the sponsors happy. If MacMillan stopped that, she wouldn’t have income. Like many others, it made her chained to her social media accounts. She could never fully unplug and take a break.

It Had a Huge Effect on Her

MacMillan was already dealing with depression and anxiety, and the pressure to churn out content to keep her followers happy exacerbated those issues. We can only imagine how she must have felt trapped in a place where her worth was based on her achievements and not who she was as a person.

Lee poses with Occy on the street.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

Even though MacMillan received thousands of likes and positive comments, she couldn’t help but focus on the few negative messages. She tried to be as authentic as possible but couldn’t fully articulate the constant pain of depression and anxiety even if she wanted to.

She Wasn’t Alone

According to an article written by Jenni Gritters, who interviewed 12 Instagram influencers about how social media negatively affects their lives, she said most of them were unhappy. Gritters wrote, “Many of the 12 influencers I spoke with said they felt tied to a statistic, inauthentic identity.”

Lee MacMillan talks about her experience.
Source: YouTube

The influencers shared that they couldn’t put their phones or laptops down because they were constantly online. Being an influencer requires interacting with your audience at all hours. Gritters added, “Taking a break is considered a big no-no.” MacMillan wasn’t the only one struggling.

No Way to Be Authentic

The biggest problem with social media is that even when you are trying to be authentic, there is still an underlying thought about whether people will like you. This factor prevents true authenticity from ever happening online. It was probably a big concern for MacMillan to be liked online.

Lee MacMillan takes photos while out in the fields.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

When MacMillan saw the negative comments, it didn’t matter how many positive things people wrote; she wanted to make everyone happy. She would write about her anxiety and depression, but a beautiful photo always accompanied it because she knew that’s what people would like.

The Irony of It All

Unfortunately, the irony of MacMillan’s death is that it is still producing content and hashtags like #speakupforLee. This might raise awareness about mental health, but no one is talking about the correlation between mental illness and social media. She continues to be reduced to a hashtag for likes.

MacMillan poses with camels.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

MacMillan’s friends and family aren’t discussing how Instagram can make people feel more isolated and anxious or how those with mental illness can feel worse when they seek validation solely from social media. It might not cause depression, but it definitely doesn’t help those suffering.

They Tried to Change

Instagram has tried to improve its platform due to the growing concern for mental health. They announced a feature for removing the “like” count to make it feel less like a competition. However, likes aren’t the problem; the content and comments hurt people.

Lee is writing in a journal.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

The head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri said, “We want it to be a place where people spend more of their time and energy connecting with the people they love and the things they care about.” However, the platform causes users to compare themselves to the minuscule part of a person’s life online.

It’s Addicting

If you feel like you are addicted to social media, no matter how much you want to take a break, you aren’t alone. App developers have designed social media to be addictive to keep you scrolling for hours. And it’s hard to pull yourself away from using the platforms.

A photo of Lee cuddling in bed.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

While we can never imagine deleting our accounts, it’s important to be more mindful when scrolling. There is always room for constant comparison, but you must remind yourself that what you see online is never the truth. People never share the full truth.

She Was Obsessed

Like MacMillan, Alexandra Mondalek, a fashion reporter in New York, found herself obsessing over social media. She noticed her account was gaining more and more followers, and it became the only thing she thought about. Mondalek wanted to reach “influencer” status.

Alexandra Mondalek poses in a garden.
Source: Twitter

Mondalek admitted that she thought too much about who was looking at her social media. Instead of doing her job, she would worry about how a post was performing. It started to cause Mondalek anxiety because she felt pressured to make a brand.

She Realized the Problem

Although it was a difficult decision, Mondalek decided to quit Instagram in 2017. She took nine months away from the platform and felt better than ever. Mondalek didn’t want her obsession to hurt her in the long run as it did for MacMillan.

Alexandra Mondalek speaks onstage.
Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

When Modalek returned to Instagram, she found herself procrastinating again due to mindless scrolling. She also started comparing herself to others on her explore page. She said, “It’s the rat-race lifestyle boiled down to the palm of your hand.”

No One to Blame

Even though it would be easy to say MacMillan should have deleted her social media to take a break and work on her mental health, that probably wouldn’t have happened. Being online became her job, and it was too hard to pull her mind away from that.

Lee poses with Occy in the snow.
Source: Instagram/@speakupforlee

Mental illnesses are real diseases, and social media has been proven to exacerbate them. There is no one to blame for MacMillan’s death because she had a disease that was too much to handle. While it is a tragic case, her story reminds us that what you see online isn’t the truth.