No shame in needing help

Posted: January 23, 2014

I ASKED Penn track-and-field director Steve Dolan if he'd be willing to speak with me about Madison Holleran, the 19-year-old freshman track star who leapt to her death Friday from the top of a Center City parking garage.

Holleran, who had been struggling with depression, left behind a note, gifts for her family and scores of devastated family members, teammates, friends and loved ones.

Dolan declined my request, saying this is an emotional time for him and the teams.

"We are just focusing on supporting each other as we work through this tragedy," he wrote in an email. "I hope you understand."

My goodness - of course. My hope, though, is that as the initial shock of Holleran's suicide recedes, all who knew and loved her will find the strength to speak publicly and candidly about her passing. Doing so may help destigmatize mental illness among those who are suffering from depression but are reluctant to seek help.

Maybe, they'll think, if someone as bright, promising and focused as Holleran fought the demons of despair, perhaps despair is nothing to be ashamed of but something to be treated as nonjudgmentally as we treat other maladies.

The more that point is hammered home - in the press, in the classroom, around the kitchen table, on national TV - the greater the chance of putting a dent in this country's appallingly high suicide rate.

In 2010 alone - the latest year for which statistics are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - 38,364 Americans died by suicide. That's more than double the 16,259 who died by homicide that year. In Philadelphia, there were 329 homicides and 168 suicides in 2012, the latest year for which suicide statistics are available. Yet the homicide rate is the only rate we track with interest.

Indeed, Holleran's death made news only because of the very public way she ended her life. If she'd succumbed more quietly, it's doubtful we'd even know of her passing. Suicide just isn't something we talk about easily. Even newspaper obituaries rarely mention the word. Instead, the deceased is said to have died "suddenly."

As if one minute they were there and the next - wink-wink, nudge-nudge - they were gone.

"The sad thing is, by not saying the word, family members partake in this weird perpetuation of the stigma around suicide as if it is different from another kind of death," says Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

I'd spoken with Moutier just after Christmas, when I was working on a column about a beloved suburban schoolteacher and father who'd died by suicide. His grieving family, for a variety of reasons, had insisted the school district not use the word suicide in association with public discussion of his death.

And so the district stayed mum publicly even though everyone knew exactly what had happened, including the students - whose questions about the suicide, say parents I spoke with, were handled honestly and sensitively.

I never wrote the column, out of deference to the teacher's grieving loved ones. After all, noted Bruce Shapiro, executive director of Columbia University's Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, "The teacher left behind not just his own children but hundreds of students. They need time to process and heal."

In comparison, the family of Madison Holleran has been very forthright about her state of mind before her death.

She had been under a therapist's care, her father told the New York Post, and she'd told of having suicidal thoughts in December. He said his daughter, after a standout academic career at Northern Highlands High School in Allendale, N.J., had struggled to handle her rigorous Ivy League workload.

"There was a lot more pressure in the classroom at Penn," James Holleran said. "She wasn't normal happy Madison. Now she had worries and stress."

According to North Jersey's the Record, Holleran was equally candid at his daughter's funeral yesterday, where hundreds of mourners crowded into Guardian Angel Roman Catholic Church in Allendale. Before the funeral, the family had asked supporters to donate to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in lieu of flowers.

"Please seek therapy if you need it," James Holleran advised the congregation. "This is not a weakness, but a struggle."

May those words become Madison Holleran's legacy, and may they help those who really need to hear them.

Need help? Call the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hot line, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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