The Tragedy of Madison Holleran and Suicides at Penn

University of Pennsylvania freshman Madison Holleran took her life in January, and word of three more student suicides shook Locust Walk. What is driving our best and brightest to such desperation? And can Penn — or anyone — keep overachieving kids from pushing themselves too far?

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Family, friends and scenes from Madison Holleran’s Instagram feed.

Doors were beginning to open for Madison Holleran. She racked up straight As, ran track, and pushed her Northern Highlands Regional High School soccer team to two New Jersey state championships. As she entered her junior year in 2011, Lehigh University soccer coach Eric Lambinus became a regular at her matches. Lambinus hoped to recruit Holleran as his center-midfielder, the most physically taxing and important position in his system. “What impressed me about Maddy,” he says, “is that she was exceptionally skilled in the fundamentals. She was very good, and she made the players around her better.”

At home, Holleran mothered her siblings. On the field, she led without seeming to try: first downfield to hug a teammate who scored, chattering to keep everyone’s energy up. Lambinus admired Holleran’s easy charisma, watching as even his Lehigh squad — college students — gravitated toward the younger girl when she arrived from Allendale, New Jersey, on visits. He also noticed something else: “You could just see, in social situations, her being very aware of the other girls’ reactions,” he says. “She seemed to need approval. But you figure that’s something to work on.”




Lambinus thought he had a good shot at recruiting Holleran. But during her senior year, competition emerged. Holleran was also a standout middle-distance runner, and Harvard’s track program flew her to Boston, took her to dinner and gave her a tour of the campus.

“What would you think about my playing soccer, too?” she asked.

These were words no track coach longs to hear. Harvard never made an offer. But the University of Pennsylvania called.

Lambinus says Holleran seemed particularly troubled by selecting a school. Though she offered Lambinus a verbal commitment — “I think she was very comfortable with Lehigh,” he says — she still appeared “unsteady” about the choice.

Lehigh offered the small, bucolic environment she enjoyed in high school, and soccer, the sport she loved most. But what kid knows herself so well that she can announce, at 18, to parents, relatives and friends, that she’s choosing personal happiness, the safer option, over a shot at big-time Ivy League success?

“Could you stop with the drama?” Holleran would say every time her little sister acted like the sky was falling. She was always the mature one, the young girl with an adult’s capacity to plan. So whatever pressure she felt along the way, when Holleran pulled out of Lambinus’s program and chose Penn, the moment looked like a triumph. Holleran went Ivy, accepting a reward commensurate with her young life’s achievement.

What shocked everyone is what happened next. On January 17, 2014, just as her second semester got under way, Madison Holleran trekked about a mile and a half from Penn’s campus to Center City and killed herself. Her death was one of five among the Penn student body in six months’ time, including four confirmed suicides. The tragedies cast a sudden pall over Penn’s image as a dream destination for every high-achieving kid and his or her parents. Criticism centered on Penn’s notoriously competitive student culture and understaffed mental health services. But the question raised by the Penn suicides is broader and more fundamental than any campus policy, reaching into every home where parents send their sons and daughters off to college with big dreams and bright futures:

Why would these kids — top of their class, the elite, bound for success — choose to kill themselves?

The search for answers, and potential remedies, suggests a radical shift — a new way of looking at suicide, our children and ourselves; a more honest way of handling a problem we usually treat with silence.

WE SPEAK SO LITTLE OF SUICIDE that the issue might seem esoteric. But according to survey data by suicide experts, about 10 percent of the country’s college students think about killing themselves (what health professionals call “suicidal ideation”) at some point in their college careers. Almost one percent make an attempt. If these numbers sound small, do the math: Penn has about 24,000 students, meaning that roughly 2,400 of them will suffer so profoundly from a sense of pain or depression that they’ll consider killing themselves; within that group, 240 students will make an attempt.

The biggest dangers are neurobiological: The human brain isn’t fully developed until we are about 25 years old, particularly in regions associated with impulsivity and emotional regulation. In this context, even a healthy kid is likely to struggle with transitioning from the childhood home to whatever comes next. Now consider that mental illness often first manifests itself between ages 16 and 25.

The risk is clear. But what happened at Penn recently still surprises:

Last August, the death of 24-year-old Wendy Shung, a popular graduate student and resident adviser whose kids called themselves “Wendy’s Wolf Pack,” was declared a suicide.

Pulkit “Josh” Singh, a 20-year-old engineering and Wharton business-school junior, was found dead on January 12th in an apartment he rented off campus. Speculation over his cause of death continued until a city health department official deemed it an accidental drug overdose in April.

Holleran took her own life five days later. Over Thanksgiving break, she told her parents she had contemplated suicide. Her father told the New York Post that she’d been happy in high school but that after going to Penn she had “worries and stress.”

• Sophomore Elvis Hatcher, 18, hung himself in his fraternity house on February 3rd, and later died in the hospital. He first confessed suicidal thoughts to his parents at age 15, and had been in treatment ever since.

• Almost two months after Hatcher’s suicide, the public learned of a fourth — Alice Wiley, a graduate student in social policy who died over winter break, just before the New Year.

Mental health experts say suicide never results from one fight, one conversation, one lost job. More likely, a person struggles against some preceding, often untreated mental illness, like depression. Then a series of stressors adds weight until the inexplicable happens. In this formula, no one burden — be it college, Ivy League or otherwise; family and relationship problems; drug and alcohol use — is to blame any more than others. “I think one of the things we struggle against in the world of suicide prevention,” says Christine Moutier, chief medical officer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “is that we’re always trying to explain it. We’re always asking, ‘Why? How could someone do this?’ But there’s not one explanation.”

Moutier and other experts maintain, however, that despite suicide’s myriad causes, prevention is possible. Between 1990 and 2010, suicide rates dropped slightly among adolescents, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. And in a sense, academic success is protective — kids who don’t attend college are twice as likely to die by suicide as those who do. Still, the four suicides at Penn in just six months are cause for reflection on the pressure today’s highest achievers are under: to ace the toughest available courses; excel at sports; join extracurricular clubs; and then find time on the weekends to volunteer.

These overscheduled kids strive for perfection, spending their adolescence collecting medals, first-place finishes and congratulatory handshakes. But when they arrive at Locust Walk, they are suddenly surrounded by thousands of peers who were also the smartest and best. They experience failure, perhaps for the first time in their lives. They feel like they are letting down their families. And just as they are beginning to gather power in the world, they might be at their most vulnerable.

MADISON HOLLERAN’S FIRST SEMESTER at Penn was tough, despite her 3.5 GPA. She had a big, close social circle in high school, a support system built from childhood. That chapter of Holleran’s life can still be seen online — playing sports, singing with friends, dancing with her old teammates on a hotel bed.

Those bonds aren’t forged overnight at a new school. But Holleran was probably a lot more popular in college than she believed. The new friends she made remember her stopping, repeatedly, anywhere she walked, to say hello to people she knew. Later, media coverage would fixate on her looks — her thin frame, delicate features and joy-bomb smile. Her track teammates simply thought she was relaxed and confident.

“She was just one of those people who had an effortless glow about her,” says Lauren Murphy, a fellow runner. “She did everything with elegance and grace.”

Holleran did confide in a couple of new friends. She told Ashley Montgomery, another freshman on the track team, that Penn wasn’t what she’d hoped. Running track wore on her. She missed her pals back home. She talked, a lot, about what she wanted from life — a home in California, maybe, and plenty of outdoor time. “It sounds funny to say, but she was very serious about being happy,” says Montgomery. “She’d try to figure out what happiness is, like a formula, and she’d get really analytical.”

Holleran and Montgomery ran together, frequently, through the city. Holleran often paused to take pictures of pretty views. On a fall evening, after track, Holleran hauled Montgomery to the top of Franklin Field. The sunset cascaded before them, swirls of orange and pink decorating the sky. At the time, Montgomery considered the constant picture-taking an eccentricity. Later, Montgomery came to believe that for Holleran, happiness was “more a thought than a feeling” — something she caught sight of, outside herself, and tried to capture before it disappeared.

LIZZY HATCHER REGISTERED the sound, buzzing through her sleep.

The phone.

She could feel her husband, Kevin, rouse beside her. And as the world around her came into focus — still dark, phone ringing — she could feel fear, like a flatworm, twitch and curl in her stomach.

She remembers only the key words the doctor told her husband: “Son. Elvis. Attempted suicide. Critical.” From there, her every act — sitting up in bed, putting her feet to the floor, standing — felt unreal. The university arranged travel from Florida, but snow in Philadelphia forced an agonizing series of delays at the airport. “It was just an awful, awful day,” she says. “Such a helpless feeling.”

By the time the Hatchers landed, it was after 9 p.m. Someone from Penn — Hatcher doesn’t remember who — picked them up and drove them straight to the hospital. Elvis was already on life support. “The next morning,” says Hatcher, “he passed away.”

Hatcher posts on Facebook regularly, intermixing fond remembrances of Elvis with exhortations on treating depression. She speaks proudly of her son — a multi- instrumentalist and dancer with a furious wave of curly hair who loved wearing bow ties. He’d made friends at Penn and joined a fraternity. But over the course of multiple phone conversations, her voice weakens. “Life is just … so different now,” she says. “We just try to get through the day.”

Two days after Hatcher’s death, Penn acted swiftly, announcing the hiring of three new mental health counselors at Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, and, weeks later, the formation of a Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare. Penn president Amy Gutmann wrote about the changes in a university-wide email, simultaneously touting the expansion of services and denying any connection between the counseling center and the suicides.

“While all evidence indicates that the recent student deaths are unrelated to each other,” she wrote, “and certainly unrelated to the work done at CAPS, we know that the needs of the community are placing greater than ever demand on our valuable student support teams.”

In the same memo, Gutmann noted that in the past eight years, CAPS had grown its senior staff by 10. The message struck some as cold politicking when a tender hand was needed; in one line, Gutmann used the acronym “FTE” to denote the hiring of “Full Time Employees.”

“I think the whole response just reflected a kind of corporate mind-set,” says Toorjo Ghose, a member of Penn’s faculty senate and an assistant professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice. “She wrote as if she was responding to shareholders — not to young people who might be grieving and in pain.”

In terms of mental health, Penn students face a unique challenge. The school culture is notoriously competitive, a battle among valedictorian-level intellects where a Work harder, play harder mentality runs from the Wharton Business School to the humanities and sciences. Last year, 34th Street Magazine published a survey that found 71 percent of Penn students got blackout drunk at least once in college. For close to 25 percent, blacking out was the goal. Some kids also talk about a phenomenon called “Penn Face,” in which students express how stressful their lives are without ever showing any strain.

This culture may not be responsible for Hatcher’s death, or Holleran’s. But should it change in some way so that the next Hatcher or Holleran might be helped?

University spokesman Ron Ozio didn’t make any Penn administrators or professors available for interviews. Late in February, however, Penn’s silence was broken: The dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, Richard Gelles, told me one of his students — later identified as Alice Wiley — had died by suicide over break, prior to Holleran and Hatcher.

Penn can’t exactly be accused of hiding Wiley’s death; the school says it wasn’t aware of it until January. No law requires universities to track or disclose suicides among their student bodies. Experts also present strong data demonstrating that publicizing a suicide can encourage further suicides — a phenomenon known as the “contagion” effect. And out of respect for privacy or liability concerns, universities usually defer to the deceased student’s parents, rendering a campus suicide a secret.

History suggests, however, that a cluster of suicides brings change. Drexel University responded to a pair of suicides last year by forming a task force, which is still making recommendations. Penn’s fellow Ivy League school Cornell suffered a cluster of suicides from 2009 to 2011 and moved swiftly to upgrade its mental health services. And momentum is developing for changes at Penn and beyond.

An online petition promoting “The Madison Holleran Law,” to be presented in the New Jersey state legislature, is gathering thousands of signatures, seeking to force universities to publicly report suicides. CAPS also faces pressure to further increase its staff size. A scoop by Penn’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, turned up documents that revealed students often endure three-to-four-week waits for an initial visit — an eternity for someone struggling with the sudden onset of a mental illness. Those documents lent support to similar reports Penn students gave me. CAPS’s 38 full-time staff members are a mix of psychiatrists, social workers and interns. Cornell, in the wake of its own spate of suicides, has roughly 3,000 fewer students than Penn but an equal number of staffers. Even the most progressive aspect of Penn’s response — the mental health task force — seemed inadequate, given that no student representatives were invited to participate.

There are few if any clear lines between the recent deaths and failures in Penn’s mental health services. Little is known about the suicides of Alice Wiley and Wendy Shung. Hatcher fought depression for years, and preferred to see his longtime doctor in Miami Beach via Skype. “Penn had nothing to do with his suicide,” says Lizzy Hatcher. “I think he just got tired of the fight. He enjoyed his classes and friends. He loved Philadelphia.”

Madison Holleran did seek help from CAPS after telling her family over Thanksgiving break that she was stressed and having suicidal thoughts. But Holleran didn’t stay long at CAPS. She attended one or two sessions, with an intern; seeing a senior staff member would have required her to wait several weeks. She ultimately saw a counselor closer to her home in New Jersey.

Holleran’s father doesn’t blame the university for his daughter’s death. But in response to their losses, Penn’s students took to the school paper’s opinion pages, social media and message boards. Wharton sophomore Erica Ligenza wrote of being afraid to confess that she has anxiety issues in such a high-achieving environment. Hilary Barlowe complained that CAPS dismissed her suicidal feelings as a “normal adjustment” to college. Barlowe had been on psychiatric leave.

Sophomore Alexandra Sternlicht wrote an article in the DP, “Left to Grieve Alone, Together,” decrying how Penn, unlike Yale, Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard, does not automatically send student-wide emails after anyone dies. Further, students must notify professors themselves when a friend in the student body passes away.

“Not only is Penn’s neglectful response to death an exception amongst peer institutions,” wrote Sternlicht. “[I]t is also unhealthy. And even Penn knows it. According to Penn’s Behavioral Corporate Services, when the subject of death is ‘avoided, ignored or denied,’ the grieving process is compromised. … Penn is compromising students’ mental health.”

Ghose, probably the most outspoken of Penn’s faculty members on the recent suicides, agrees that more action — and honest reflection — is needed. “It would be irresponsible to blame the university for these deaths,” says Ghose. “But it is also true that this is an occasion for the university to look at itself, and our culture, and improve our mental health services. Because this is an elite university. But our mental health on campus is not elite. … And I think the administration should just acknowledge that.”

One student on a Penn-based mental health website dubbed “Pennsive” wrote that after she survived a second suicide attempt in two years, she received a hospital visit from a Penn administrator.

“Are we going to make this an annual pattern?” the administrator asked.

“No,” the student said.

The administrator left then, handing her a business card.

MADISON HOLLERAN AND INGRID HUNG met on campus, maybe three weeks into the fall semester. The two shared at least one meal together per day, and every so often, Holleran declared a “movie night,” meaning snacks — she had a peanut butter obsession — and romantic comedies.

Dressed in a crew jacket and jeans, her black hair covering her shoulders, Hung sits in a Starbucks near the Penn campus. She recalls their last movie date, watching The Parent Trap the night before Holleran died, and their friendship. “Maddy and I bonded around feeling homesick,” Hung says of their usual conversations. “And we talked a lot about just getting through it. ‘Freshman year!’ We would say to each other, ‘We are going to make it at Penn. We will make friends. We will join a sorority. And we will be happy.’”

Hung says Holleran admitted that she missed her family, friends and soccer. She also feared that turning down Lehigh’s soccer scholarship was a mistake. Hung doesn’t cite the pressure of Penn, specifically, for Holleran’s troubles. She says that leaving home and attending any college would have been tough for Madison. Hung also saw her struggle with the burden particular to their generation — to have a great time, always, and post pictures of her revels on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

“I’m not sure how I’m even going to talk to my friends back home,” Holleran told Hung. “I look at my friends on Facebook, and they all seem so happy. They are all having these great college experiences, and I’m not.”

Today, Hung commiserates.

“On social media, everyone presents a false picture of their life,” she says. “No one ever posts a picture of themselves looking sad. Everyone is at the coolest party. And I think all of us wonder, sometimes, ‘Why isn’t my life like that? Why don’t I feel like smiling like them?’”

The version of herself that Holleran projected to the world online offered no clues to the turmoil she held inside. Her Instagram stream is rife with pretty pictures. And any stress she expressed on Twitter reads like typical schoolgirl patter.

“FREEEEEDiOM!!!!!!!!!!!! Spendin my last day in Philly with my gf before headin home,” she wrote on December 20th.

“VS fashion show is on and I’m in the damn library,” she wrote on December 10th. “Something here is not right.”

There is also a cell-phone video of a November Penn track meet that captures Holleran running a race. She rounds a corner and pulls a muscle, maybe 10 yards from the finish line. She seizes up, then jerks along, fighting, till she can finally throw herself across the finish line.

“That’s my Maddy,” says a family friend. “Tough as ever.”

“I AM VERY LUCKY to be alive,” says Jack Park. He is tall, slim and well-dressed, with dark eyes, a gentle demeanor and a soft speaking voice. A junior at Penn, Park announced in February, through social media, that he had attempted suicide in his dorm room — twice. Park has attained a kind of celebrity in recent months, a fact about which he seems humble, even bemused. “I am very pleased that you are interested in my story,” he says.

Alerting the world to his battle with mental illness was brave enough. But Park also publicly listed his phone number and email address. “My operating hours are 24/7, 365,” he wrote in a Tumblr post, taking what reads like a slap at CAPS, which only added evening hours after the recent suicides. “To make time for these calls, I dropped courses to take only the four minimum credits legally required for international kids to attend Penn. Please, please, do not attempt to kill yourself and call this number if you want to hear me out. Life is so much more beautiful than death. I taught myself this the hard way. … ”

Park took a semester off from school, returned to Penn, and completed his sophomore year before the Holleran and Hatcher suicides convinced him to go public.

“I take medication now,” he says, without a trace of shyness, “for depression and bipolar disorder, and I feel good.”

Traditionally, people who survive suicide attempts keep the topic secret. But these days, Park isn’t alone. Drexel business student Drew Bergman gives lectures about his own suicide attempts. Online, the website Live Through This has gathered more than three dozen testimonials from suicide survivors — teachers, health-care professionals, moms and dads. In April, the New York Times chronicled this new openness among suicide prevention experts in talking about suicide attempts.

In part, these initiatives spring from a growing understanding that mental health should be addressed in the same terms as our physical health. No young adult would hesitate to tell her parents that her knee hurts. But admitting that thoughts of suicide keep popping up, or that feelings of anxiousness and depression are all-consuming, still carries a stigma. The reason is easy to see: A bum knee is just something we have. We believe our thoughts reveal who we are.

Mental health, however, relates to physical workings in our brain. Researchers at Columbia who study suicide have published data showing that abnormalities in brain chemistry and structure are present in the suicidal — including deficiencies in pleasure-dealing serotonin. “These things are treatable,” says Columbia researcher J. John Mann, “with therapy and medication, and that’s what people need to understand.”

Capitalizing on this knowledge requires a bold cultural shift in which parents teach their kids to talk about their mental health as freely as they would a headache. “It’s a new and very hopeful time,” says Christine Moutier, from the AFSP. “All of these people who used to stay in the dark are coming out now, despite the stigma, and putting a face on this issue.”

For now, however, mental illness and suicide remain stigmatized, in part because of advice coming from the very same experts. The “contagion effect” is real: Publicity surrounding suicides can increase the suicide rate, and suicides often occur in geographical clusters, like one from 2000 to 2003 in which six Cherry Hill teenagers took their own lives.

Mental health experts endorse strict guidelines for publicizing suicide: Don’t mention the location or method; avoid depicting the mourning of family members; and resist stories that might make anyone who died by suicide appear attractive or celebrated.

“We struggle with this,” says Alison Malmon, “throughout the community of people working on the issue of suicide prevention.” Malmon was a student at Penn 10 years ago when her brother, a senior at Columbia, killed himself. She founded a nonprofit, Active Minds, to combat mental illness and prevent suicide on college campuses.

“There is already such a huge stigma around suicide and mental illness in general,” she says. “And some of us fear that if we’re too strict about what we should or shouldn’t say, we’re actually adding to that stigma and keeping the subject in the dark.”

People who attempt suicide are usually convinced that all of their distorted thinking is true. They have often spent a long time formulating a plan and display incredible calm, despite the pain they’re in, because they believe they’ve found the only way out. Many are saved, even then, by reaching what could be called a “bend” moment — some unexpected turn of events that makes them rethink the plan they spent so long crafting.

Sometimes a restriction on the means they intend to use is enough: Cornell put barriers around bridges on campus to discourage jumpers, and some hospitals install break-away shower rods to prevent hangings. Penn spokesman Ron Ozio responded to an email asking if the university employs any of these methods by saying, “University buildings are built to existing state and local codes.” But what, exactly, will divert someone from a suicide plan is difficult to calculate.

“Often,” says Moutier, “you’ll hear some story, after the fact, and think, ‘This was the moment’ that might have saved them. But sometimes the person suffering has adopted a kind of tunnel vision. What looks like a rational way out to the rest of us doesn’t look that way to them at all.”

Holleran may have believed that quitting Penn would comprise such a heavy blow that everyone would be better off if she died. In this sense, people like Park and Bergman can be a tremendous resource, not only because they can speak about what they thought and felt while suicidal, but because they’re the figures often missing from stories like this — those who provide, in this dark space, a sense of hope. The fact is, most who suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts survive. Go back to the math: Out of the projected 2,400 Penn kids who will consider suicide, nearly 90 percent will choose to go on.

The answer to reducing suicide — or part of it — might be to simply tell more stories, particularly of people who’ve survived their suicidal thoughts, so that tales like those of Holleran and Hatcher are placed in context. And so we can understand the real depth of the tragedy here: These lives are over when they might yet have been transformed.

OVER THE HOLIDAYS, at Thanksgiving, Madison Holleran told her parents how she was suffering. She felt unhappy at Penn. The academics were demanding. Worse, her track coach required two-a-day practices, even with classes in session. She was overtaxed. She’d thought of suicide.

The Hollerans, in response, took all the expected steps. They got her help — a counselor who told her to call if she ever formulated a suicide plan. When she didn’t feel comfortable at CAPS, they looked for a private psychologist. On the drive from North Jersey to Penn after the semester break, Holleran said, “Dad, I don’t want to go back.”

“I understand,” her father, Jim, replied. “You should look at transferring.”

But she declined. She wanted to make Penn work.

Holleran and her friend, Ingrid Hung, arrived on campus the Saturday before spring classes began. They attended a Penn women’s basketball game. That evening, Holleran told Hung she’d been thinking of transferring.

“Oh, no,” Hung replied. “I knew you were sad, but I had no idea you were this sad. …”

Holleran, seeing her friend’s reaction, stopped the transfer talk right there. “No,” Holleran said, “it’s fine.”

Over the next couple of days, she peppered Hung with text messages: “We’re going to have so much fun,” Holleran wrote. “We’re going to love it here.”

“I don’t think she fully wanted me to know how bad it was for her,” Hung says now.

On Friday, January 17th, Holleran went into Center City. She stopped at various stores and bought gifts for her family. Her dad called around noon. He wanted to visit her. But she told him not to worry. She had sorority rush events, and the Penn track team was scheduled to run at Lehigh that weekend.

She sent pleasant text messages throughout the day. At 5 p.m., she texted a friend who’d been trying to reach her. “I just got back from a run,” she wrote. “Whatcha doing?”

Around 6 p.m., she walked to Rittenhouse Square. The park was still decorated for Christmas. Holleran took a cell phone picture: Big balls of light glow in the trees, capturing an idyll Holleran was unable to preserve or nurture in her own heart.

At 6:27 p.m., she walked south along 15th Street across Locust and felt a hand grasp her arm. She turned and saw Eric Lambinus, the Lehigh soccer coach.

Of course, this was it — the moment when the arc of Holleran’s story might have bent toward life. Symbolically, Lambinus was an ideal candidate to play this role. Decades ago, his sister, a nursing student, died by suicide at roughly the same age as Holleran. “She was unhappy,” he says. “And she was convinced that if she quit school she’d be letting everyone down, and she couldn’t go on.”

That evening, though, he was just glad to see Madison. He wanted her to know he bore no hard feelings over her choosing Penn.

“Madison,” he said, “how are you?”

“Things aren’t going great for me here,” she said. “I’m not so happy, running track.”

Lambinus had to be careful. NCAA regulations prohibit tampering. But he tried to let her know the door was open. “There is a process you have to follow,” he told her. “But talk to your parents. Talk to your coach. … You should be happy.”

Lambinus was in town for an NCAA athletics convention and scheduled to meet friends at Fadó for dinner. He needed to get back to them. But before he left Madison, he gave voice to something that bothered him.

“What are you doing by yourself on a Friday night?” he asked.

In all his time recruiting her, he didn’t think he’d ever seen Madison Holleran alone.

“I was just doing some shopping,” she said. “But I’m meeting some friends for dinner.”

They parted. About 15 minutes later, Holleran reached 15th and Spruce. She climbed the stairs to the fifth floor of a parking garage. She didn’t have to do it. But at the moment, she couldn’t see how to do anything else.

For confidential support if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Learn about the warning signs of suicide at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Originally published as "The Penn Suicides" in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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  • Joe from Easton

    I think social media is as much to blame as academic / sports pressure. I know as a younger person and a member of the social media generation that there have been many times where I questioned my own happiness simply because I logged on FB and saw other people’s pictures and statuses. I wondered why their lives seem so much more interesting, fun-filled, or generally happier than mine when in reality I can look at my own page and see the same things. We only show other people the enviable things and build this great image of ourselves which can affect someone else’s self image unknowingly. This is truly a sad story.

  • Amanda

    This is story is overly sensationalized. We get it, a high-achieving athlete and scholar snapped in a moment’s weakness. People are more interested in knowing about this young lady’s rise and her eventual failure. As a Penn student, this story paints my school and peer institutions in a manner that discourages future applicants and serves as more of a back thought for students who are not on campus. People must be thinking- “She went to an ivy league and is successful and look that ‘success’ did to her,” a pattern similar to the downfall of celebrities. Maybe it’s a time we didn’t make a celebration out of seemingly “successful” people’s failures for the sake of entertainment.

    • Adriane

      Actually, it said that there is a tipping point for people where depression and suicidal ideation may come to fruition based on other factors. Nothing to do with Penn State. It’s saying that people aren’t surprised when some people kill themselves but realize there’s more to suicide when someone who seemingly has it all kills themself. It’s a warning, not a celebration. This isn’t about you.

      • Brittany

        University of Pennsylvania, not Penn State.

        • Adriane

          I was thinking later that I may have written Penn State not UPenn. More experience with Penn State so it rolls off the tongue. Thanks for pointing out my error.

      • Amanda

        a warning to who? writing about suicides rarely prevents future suicides, but people will gobble up the story anyway. if it had nothing to do with penn and happened at a community college, then this particular case wouldn’t be so heavily publicized.

        • Adriane

          I don’t agree with the premise that talking about suicide doesn’t prevent suicide. The warning I was speaking of was an awareness that suicide doesn’t always come in the dark, obvious package that people assume that it does. I do agree that more stories about people who survived suicidal ideation or even an attempt is probably more beneficial and in that sense, unfortunately the oversensationalized dramatic story wins. I read this article because of a good friend’s tireless work on removing the stigma from mental illness.

    • LT

      Amanda, you so missed the point of this article and its ashame that you feel that this was meant to sensationalize the passings of these young people. This was not meant to cast a black-eye on your beloved UPenn, but rather a way for people to reflect upon the events leading up to that may — or may not have — led to their suicides. No one will really know for sure, and that’s maddening to the family and friends who know them best. So, Amanda, this is not a black and white situation, and that might not sit well with you. But I hope that perhaps that maybe as you grow older and wiser that one day you will understand.

    • Kyle

      What an absolutely heartless post to make given the subject matter. By all means defend your school, but wow, this was unnecessary.

    • Wednesday

      This is one of the least sensationalized stories I’ve read about Madison, actually. Yes, the narrative was a bit dramatized, but most other articles focused on very little other than the fact that she was pretty and popular, as if that somehow made her death more important than if she was not. As somebody who knew her personally when we were younger and as a person who has also considered suicide, that was reprehensible to me. I also find it absolutely disgusting to paint Madison’s death not as the tragic and probably preventable outcome of mental illness, but as a “failure” that happened in a “moment of weakness,” and apparently something that is less important to you than the public image of your school. At least this article had the decency to look into the context of her suicide and take a serious look at the possible flaws in the way mental illness is handled at Penn.

  • http://ridingthirdrail.wordpress.com/ Babnik81

    It’s “hanged” not “hung.”

  • silvermaran

    The real cause of AIDS immune suppression does that to some people. Adding new Meningitis antigens KNOWING they already have gene sharing stealth should have been something the NIH/CDC cared about. Esp. with over 8000 soldiers suicides and over 2000 this yr. alone caused by adding infectious Anthrax and Smallpox antigens to stealth. But they didn’t and they don’t! 3 pages of irrefutable proof they KNOW what they have been doing to our kids and did nothing to help save them. US has an ignored pandemic of kids falling over dead and killing themselves because of infections in the neuron’s criminals gave them.
    http://www.lymeneteurope.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=5147&p=37251#p37251

  • GetReal

    Amanda, I take serious issue with you terming Madison’s suicide as a “failure”. It’s inappropriate, and highly insensitive. Instead of judging her and trying to protect Penn, perhaps it’s time that you and others started listening to what I believe was the last message and lesson that who took their lives could convey: “I hurt.”
    Madison, Alice, Wendy, and Elvis are not just a statistic, nor are they a contagion. They most certainly are not failures. They are, however, people who can teach us on how to acknowledge, respect, and maybe even be the catalyst for change that this UPenn grad student feels is desperately needed to avoid losses like this in the future.

    • Amanda

      instead of trying to pick apart my argument for your own merit, why don’t you acknowledge what i am actually trying to say? respecting her doesn’t mean telling the whole world she committed suicide because of perfectionism and academic pressure, and publicizing suicides rarely prevents future suicides. and what do you mean catalyst for change? according to this article, most people did what they could to help her; not much could have been changed. but please, people love to talk about successful people’s downfalls. other people certainly experience depression, but why do you think this particular story sells?

      • Lady

        I think GetReal is taking issue with you using the word “failure”. I doubt you meant to be hurtful- but as someone who has contemplated it before ( I am in a good place now), let me assure you that your words have power. I would assume catalyst for change would be finally talking about suicide more openly. I don’t mean to be confrontational, and I agree with your point of over-sensationalizing, but where is the evidence supporting that publicizing suicides rarely prevents them? Suicide Contagion is real, but how many lives are potentially saved because they chose to seek help in their aftermath? Further, haven’t a lot of our society’s ills only been addressed when people finally begin to speak out?

      • Brian

        I would rarely, if ever comment on something like this – but I feel that your posts warrant a response. I agree that little good is done by “over-sentationalizing” something as horrible as suicide. I also agree that some suicides are given more attention than others based on social stature, appearance and many other factors. And you are undoubtedly entitled to your own opinion.

        With that said, by using this platform to defend Penn you are not only bringing shame to yourself but to the entire Penn community. This article is simply attempting to further people’s awareness of a disease that affects individuals each day. It may focus on one person that people can sympathize with in order to bring readers in. And it may bring to light some short comings at UPenn. But the issue at hand is so much larger.

        I implore you to think about those that are suffering and recognize that our university will be just fine; for now we should focus on helping those around us that may not be as fortunate.

  • Donald Sterling

    Finally some quality journalism on this site. Well done by Steve Volk.
    This is substantially more important and much more relevant than the other slop that we see from hacks like Viktor Fiorillo, Jayhawk Joel Mathis, and McQuade who tries too hard to be funny. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Mike M

    I think that it would help if we all stopped whitewashing (even in our own minds) what freshman year of college is like. Maybe it’s different at “less stressful” schools…. I doubt it, but my undergrad experience was at a place with a similar reputation for “competitiveness” to Penn’s, so I wouldn’t know. But I had a great time in high school, and a great time sophomore, junior and senior years of college. But Freshman year, especially the first half of it, felt awful. It wasn’t really the school’s fault. It’s really hard to be uprooted from your home, dropped in a new environment around people who you’ve never met before, most of whom you have a lot less in common with than the people you knew before. Your schedule has to change. You have to figure out all kinds of things about getting by living “on your own.” The classes are (appropriately) harder, and the professors aren’t like your high school teachers who know you and can sometimes be “backup parents.” And all of that when you’re 18, which is an emotionally turbulent age for a lot of people.

    I don’t know what can be done about that. But, it seems like it would be better if we were open with kids that that’s going to be the case instead of building up freshman year as the greatest year of life ever. I think that it puts a lot of pressure on people to pretend to love it, and it makes them feel like a failure when they don’t. I know that at the time, when I voiced complaints to other people about it, they acted like it was really strange. And my old friends all pretended that they loved being a freshman. Later, a number of them admitted that they hadn’t actually loved it, either… so I don’t think that my experience was unique.

    Maybe something should be done about the academic and social (and athletic, etc.) pressures of being a freshman, but I doubt that there’s much that reasonably can be. And it’s likely nothing could have been done to prevent this girl’s suicide. But, I think that it’s important for freshman to know that there’s nothing weird about being unhappy when you move away from all of your friends to a new and strange place, and are simultaneously thrown into new, stressful situations. That’s perfectly normal… You didn’t fail. You’ll figure it out.

    Starting off at a place like Penn is bound to be stressful, but I’d imagine that it would be better if people didn’t get more stressed and more miserable about the fact that they were stressed and a little unhappy.

  • HAPPY

    Does anyone else think that these kids have too much school work and not enough balance in their lives? This story seems to reflect on the fact that school might be triggering these suicides. I hope the university takes this story seriously and reevaluates how much work is expected from these kids in relation to what kind of academic and emotional supports the school provides.

  • DanaCrispovi

    my Aunty
    Allison recently got a nice 6 month old Jaguar by working from a macbook.this website C­a­s­h­d­u­t­i­e­s­.­C­O­M­

  • J.L.

    so sad… I wonder, where are professors in all this? as an adjunct professor (at another school),
    I’ve had some contact with students who show signs of depression and
    it’s hard to know how to respond. I do wish schools would equip
    teachers/professers to be better, gentler leaders, instead of leading
    the ‘rat race’.. I sense that is part of what students need from us. It seems to me that much of the pressure on professors (financial and otherwise), is trickling down to students. And also, both of the students cited as examples showed signs of having
    strong interests in the arts (photography, musician and dancer). I
    wonder if things might be different if their schools promoted the Arts
    too, in addition to the structurally-intensive courses like chem and
    math… and allowed enough time in the schedule for ‘nature’, as Madison had wanted.

  • Georgia

    Friendship helps to prevent such tragedies, family involvement and support help to buffer self image, and Penn may throw the best spring fling and provide all the distractions and tutoring needed to calm the frantic student. However, people will still die in such senseless tragedies. Not because of something you or I could have done, but because the mind focused on a weakness and allowed it to fester Without help. I do believe such media exposure will at the very least draw attention. But the action is of course dependent on the Reader.

  • christine

    I Have always told my girls (from middle school and beyond) there is always a way out. You don’t have to go back. Say the word and we can change it.

  • Emily Vaill Pfaff, MSW ’86

    There needs to be an option to print this article.

  • Eva

    I am truly, deeply sorry for Madison Holleran’s loved ones, and so sorry that this young woman was in so much pain.

    So I hope that no one takes this comment the wrong way– but there’s something about the way that this article is written that bothers me. Why is Madison’s story magnified, leaving the other suicides this year at UPenn as mere side thoughts? A popular, athletic, physically attractive girl’s life should not be more valuable than a less traditionally attractive or quieter person’s life, yet in this society, it is. And the outpouring of interest from all kinds of media outlets in Madison in particular, above countless other young people who have taken their lives, seems to demonstrate this very clearly to me.

  • Bewildered Physician

    As a physician and father of a daughter, the thing that disturbs me most about this (eloquently written) article is what PENN’s Counseling Center (or CAPS) did for Ms. Holleran. The article states that Ms. Holleran after Thanksgiving of 2013, finally had the courage to seek help from mental health resources on campus. But she only was able to “attend one or two sessions with an intern… seeing a senior staff member would have required her to wait several weeks.”

    Why?

    If an Ivy League university that costs $200,000 for four years cannot provide their own students with timely, evidence-based, basic care, than where does the money go?

    In the article, PENN repeatedly stonewalled the author for any response to even basic questions:

    How is health and mental health policy set at PENN?

    Are experienced physicians involved at the outset to diagnose and treat students with “informed consent.” That is, every new patient must get a full evaluation from a psychiatrist (often in conjunction with other physicians) in order to provide a blueprint for ongoing care. Were all risks/benefits/side effects/alternatives discussed for all treatment choices, including no treatment?

    This is the most basic Standard of Care in all of medicine. But was it the standard at CAPS.?

    The article states that an “intern” (meaning a novice) met with Ms. Holloran (unsuccessfuly it turns out.) shortly after Thanksgiving 2013. As a doctor, I want to know what experience this person had? In fact, what field were they in (Psychology, Social Work, Nursing, Medicine)? How much face-to-face, clinical time had they spent with students? Were they being adequately supervised? And why did it take so long to see someone more senior?

    My friend is a psychiatrist and he says that the ‘Standard Of Care’ for the last twenty years+ in Psychiatry (the article correctly points out that these conditions are “neurobiologic”) is a timely (2 weeks is pushing it) complete psychiatric assessmet, diagnosis and treatment plan for a new patient. Such a plan would provide patients with both recommendations and choices:
    -do they want to try therapy first? If so, do they want it to be evidence-based?
    -do they prefer medications only?
    -would they like to try both together?
    -would they elect to do none of the above?
    -what are the upsides and downsides of each?

    If such an assessment and collaborative conversation was not done at all, or done in a less than timely manner, then PENN CAPS must make serious changes to avoid being (rightly) accused of malpractice-level offenses.. The managers their must be scrupulously examined. I don’t want stonewall answers from a “University Spokesman,” I want answers from the people (CAPS managerial staff) who formulate and promulgate these policies. Are they serving their own interests (eg, easier hours, using CAPS as an experiment for someone’s vision of a counseling center instead of the urgent need for students, etc)?

    So who runs the show at CAPS? Why does it take weeks (this is l ilke telling a cancer patient that pain control may take weeks to arrive) to see a psychiatrist, who can then direct care. And what accountability and oversight is in place to make sure that things are done in an evidence-based way, but flexible to the needs of students.. Are admin decisions at CAPS documented with clear rationales? If so, can the Task Force look at these documents (with redactions to protect confidentiality.)?

    Without answers to these questions, one may assume that Ms. Holloran was simply a victim of institutional neglect. In fact, if medical malpractice involves a dereliction of duty that directly causes harm? Ms. Halloran’s family may have a case.

    So- to students and parents- SHINE A LIGHT ON CAPS. Who and with what rationale are making decisions about when our kids gets seen?, What treatment options are these patients given?, Is an experienced, board-certified psychiatrist guiding the tretament? Is documetation done by the powers-that-be at CAPS, that may begin to answer these seminal questions. Was such documentation even done?

    Don’t settle for stonewalling

    Demand answers from the people who make these life-and-death decisions. If these people are incompetent, get better people. I believe that if timely, physician- diagnosed and directed care with options (evid-based therapy alone, evidence-based medication alone, or medical psychotherapy) were given to the our sons and daughters, more of them would not only be alive but graduate from college with a decent experience.

    Finally, per DMC V, we now know that for most moderate-to-severe mental illnesses, at the very outset, a physician needs to sit with the patient, establish rapport, and collaborate to create a working diagnosis and treatment plan, with all other options on the table.

    As the severity increases (as alluded to by statistiscs in the article) and if our kids aren’t getting physician-directed care that is biopsychosocial in nature, they will continue to suffer in silence, devolve, and perhaps eventually do something unthinkably dangerous.

    So let’s SHINE A LIGHT on CAPS… something is rotten in their administrative Denmark- and its killing our kids.