“Madison was the person everyone wanted to be friends with and everyone wanted to be,” says close pal Brooke Holle.
Madison Holleran was a girls varsity soccer and track star, a 4.1 GPA student in high school and a popular girl with a lot of friends and a supportive family. In August 2013 she began her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, eager to run track. “Penn just may be the greatest place on earth,” the Allendale, N.J., teen tweeted on Aug. 25. But by December she was seeking help for depression at the student health center. Then on Jan. 17, 2014, Holleran, 19, killed herself by jumping from a parking garage. Still deep in grief and searching for answers a year later, her loved ones hope sharing her story might save another student struggling far from home. “Depression can affect anyone, no matter how successful or well loved,” says her dad, Jim Holleran, 53. With People writer Nicki Egan, those closest to Madison—along with others who encountered her in her final days—try to retrace what went wrong.
Ashley Holleran, 21, sister: In mid to late September it hit her she wasn’t happy at Penn. She was conflicted about staying on the track team. She felt it was limiting her social life. All the practices and meets meant she couldn’t do other things. And classes were really hard.
Ingrid Hung, 19, college friend: We were both struggling, both superhomesick. Madison had a hard time seeing photos on social media of her friends having so much fun. She’d say, “Why aren’t we having fun?” At the same time, we’re both posting pictures like we are.
Jackie Reyneke, 20, childhood friend, sophomore, Princeton: Everyone posts pictures of the best time they’re having; no one posts pictures of themselves sitting in their rooms crying.
Steve Dolan, Penn track coach: She was running great and seemed really enthusiastic. I didn’t know she was having a hard time.
Ashley H: Over Thanksgiving break [our 15-year-old brother] Brendan said, “You’re so different, Madison. You don’t even laugh anymore.” She said, “I know. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” She used to laugh 24/7, so you could tell something was wrong.
After Thanksgiving, Madison sought help at Penn’s mental health center. She later told her parents she didn’t like the intern she saw, and getting in with a member of the professional staff could take weeks. (Penn officials declined to comment on this allegation.) On Friday, Dec. 13, around 1 a.m., Madison sent a desperate text to her father.
Jim Holleran: She said, “I need to come home.” In the morning she took the train to Newark, N.J., and I picked her up around noon. I said, “Madison, you look depressed.” She was white as a ghost.
Stacy Holleran, mother: That weekend she told me she needed to talk to somebody, because she was having suicidal thoughts. I was shocked. She’d never been depressed before. I knew she needed a therapist, but I couldn’t get her an appointment because it was the weekend. On Sunday I had a friend come over who works in the mental health field.
Ashley H: Two years before, I’d transferred out of Penn State after my first semester because I didn’t like it. So our friend who was helping Madison said to me, “Can you give Madison any advice?” I said, “Yeah, don’t be somewhere that’s not making you happy.” The friend asked if I had ever been suicidal. I said, “No. Why? Madison, are you suicidal?” And Madison said, “No.” Then she said, “A long time ago I had a suicidal thought.”
Madison went back to Penn for finals, then came home for winter break on Dec. 20. By then the Hollerans had found a therapist locally whom Madison saw several times. Some nights Stacy slept with her troubled daughter.
Jim: Madison thought she had failed two courses. Then over the break she found out she got a 3.5 GPA. She said, “Oh that’s because they have these crazy curves. That’s the only reason I got a 3.5.” Like she wouldn’t give herself credit. She lost her confidence.
Stacy: Her whole perception was off. But she was running a lot. Going to the gym. Going to a lot of parties.
Brooke Holle, 20, childhood friend: We had a “last supper” with all of our friends before going back to school. She was so happy we were all together.
At Madison’s request, Jim went with her to her last session with her therapist on Friday, Jan. 10, the day before he drove her back to college. Madison had the name of a psychiatrist she was planning to see to get on antidepressants. She also promised her parents that she would continue counseling there.
Jim: Her therapist made it very clear that if Madison had any suicidal thoughts she was supposed to call one of us. Madison looked down and said, “I understand.”
At school Madison and her mom met with Coach Dolan that Monday to talk about quitting track and making time to join a sorority.
Dolan: She was a great student, running well, and was well liked. It was unfathomable to me to think she was as down as she was. I told her I would work with her more. In the next day or two she said she did want to run track and was moving ahead with the sorority.
Stacy: Afterward Madison had a little more spring in her step.
Jim: We’d been talking with her all week. I called her Friday [Jan. 17] around noon and asked, “Have you gone to the therapist yet?” She said, “No. I’m going to do that next week.” I said, “Well if you don’t, I’ll go down there and take you.” I wanted to come down Saturday, but she said she had sorority rush.
Ingrid: We found out what sororities we got called backed to around noon [on the same Friday]; she got called back to all six. She texted me, “Didn’t everyone get called back to all six?” Around 5:30 she texted me: “Whatcha doin?”
Eric Lambinus, soccer coach, Lehigh University: I hadn’t spoken to Madison since she chose to go to Penn over Lehigh. I happened to see her by the restaurant where we were having dinner in Philly about 6:25 p.m. She seemed to be okay. She was holding a bunch of stuff—she said she was shopping for her family. She walked away.
About 10 minutes later Madison went to the roof of a nine-story garage, a block from where she’d seen Lambinus. Around 6 p.m. she’d posted an Instagram photo of nearby Rittenhouse Square: twinkling lights in the trees of a park.
Andrew Wilcox, 30, a jogger: I was by myself, headphones in. I see something fall so fast. She landed where my next step was. Pushed? Jumped? Where did she come from? I was heartbroken, in shock, bawling. Cops got there quickly. Paramedics tried to revive her. I didn’t know it was a suicide until morning. I kept thinking, “This poor girl. What was she going through? Her family must be devastated.”
On the roof Madison had left a bag of gifts, a copy of the novel Reconstructing Amelia (about an overachieving teen who supposedly jumps to her death), a photo of herself holding a tennis racket at age 6 and a note.
Madison, in her note: “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in. For you mom … the necklaces … For you, Nana & Papa … Ginger snaps (always reminds me of you) … For you, Ingrid … the Happiness Project. And Dad … the Godiva chocolate truffles. I love you all … I’m sorry. I love you.”
Jim: Looking back I should have tried to talk to Madison more about the suicidal thoughts and how this isn’t the option to choose. I don’t think she understood how awful it would be for us to not have her around. Parents, if you see a huge change in your child and you haven’t discussed suicide with them, open that discussion up.
The Hollerans started a foundation in Madison’s honor (see box). The jogger who found her ran his first marathon to raise money for suicide prevention. A former teacher of Madison’s has a petition pushing for a law in her name to require colleges in New Jersey to make suicide and attempted suicide statistics public. And Penn, following the suicide of another student in February, hired more counselors, added hours at its mental-health clinic and convened a task force whose report is due in early 2015.
Maureen Rush, Penn VP for Public Safety: Adding more clinicians was done due to the workload—frankly, the number of students using the service. It really shook us up. I have a daughter the same age.
Madison left a second note, possibly a draft, in her dorm room. In it, says Jim, “you can just see how lost she is. The other note, she knew people were going to read. I don’t think she liked this one. She was a perfectionist.”
Madison: “I don’t know who I am anymore. trying. trying. trying …I’m sorry. I love you … sorry again… sorry again… sorry again … How did this happen?”