Why Colleges Need the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act
By Stephanie Virbitsky--I can still remember exactly where I was on January 18th, 2014. My roommate had gone to hang out with some friends down the hall and I was sitting in the dark, alone, on that cold winter night in my dorm room in Hill College House. It had been a long week and Friday night was blissfully quiet.
All bliss was shattered as I received this email several moments after midnight:
Dear members of the Hill community:
In grief and sorrow we share the news that Madison Holleran (C ’17) died Friday evening in Center City, Philadelphia. She was 19.
Madison, a distance runner on Penn’s track and field team, was a high school indoor All-American on the distance medley and a two-time New Jersey state champion in soccer.
University staff are available in Hill for the next several hours in the Upper East Lounge to meet with residents in need of information, assistance, and support as you process this loss.
Madison Holleran lived on the floor above me in Hill. We were both runners: she ran for Penn’s varsity track team, while I ran for Penn’s club track team. We were both second semester freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the elite eight Ivy Leagues.
We both struggled with a mix of depression and anxiety, some of the most common mental illnesses among college students. However, our lives could not be more different three years after arriving on campus.
College campuses are a breeding ground for mental illnesses. Equally talented and high-achieving students are placed in the same dorms and classrooms while entering their 20s, which are the most awkward and confusing time in one’s life after puberty, of course. Some find friend groups easily, while others do not. Some find people that they can trust with sharing their most inner desires and fears, while others do not. Some have a genetic disposition toward developing a mental illness, while others do not.
A study by Emory University states that there are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses each year and that suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24. The study notes that depression is the leading cause of suicide. Those who are depressed, an extremely common mental health disorder in the U.S., are at a risk of death by suicide at a rate of 20 times greater than those that are not depressed.
Luckily, treatment for depression is extremely effective. However, 80% people who struggle with depression do not receive adequate treatment or support. That is exactly why the signing of the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act is so incredibly relevant to students on college campuses everywhere.
Madison Holleran was the first of 10 student suicides that have occurred since I arrived on Penn’s campus three years ago. At the time of her death, I knew little to nothing about the resources available to me on my own campus. I am extremely grateful to have been around at Penn while the university was going through such a transformative time in its intentionality with providing relevant services to our student body.
Other college campuses have not been as proactive in updating their mental health support services to meet the needs of their students. However, with the passing of legislation like the above in the namesake of Madison Holleran, more and more students will have 24/7 access to mental health resources, which truly can mean life over death and save an increasing number of the brilliant minds that we lose each year on college campuses to mental illness.
I urge you, as both a benefactor of mental health treatment services and a former classmate of Madison’s, to be an advocate of similar legislation in your own state. Beyond advocacy, I urge you to be present to those around you in your classes, dorm room and locker room. Everyone is fighting a hard battle, but love is the most powerful cure to all of the hurts in our world.