Holley and Rachael Salmon were always very close, sharing parts of their personalities with each other that other people didn't get to see.
Only two years apart in age, the two played piano, sang with each other and considered each other best friends. Holley said her younger sister always seemed happy, despite suffering from bipolar disorder and depression.
"I feel like I was the only person she wasn't afraid to be herself around," Holley said. "I never saw her as the sick girl. To me, she was always happy and always laughing."
Rachael told her family she was feeling suicidal, and she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in April 2011. While at the hospital, she had her heart broken by a male patient. She took her own life the next day at the age of 14.
Channeling emotions through song
The loss was devastating for the Salmon family. Holley, who has been writing songs since eighth grade, expressed her emotions the best she knew how — through song.
At Rachael's funeral, Holley sang "Innocence," a song that reflects on the memories they shared as little girls. That song is now the title track on her seven-song album, which she recently finished recording and posted for sale at cdbaby.com. She also maintains a YouTube channel with solo performances of her music.
Most of the songs are about Rachael and her battle with depression. In another song, "Perfection," Holley sings about living life without worrying about being perfect or pleasing other people.
Holley, who was a junior at at the time of her sister's death, said it's been cathartic to grieve through songwriting, and she hopes her message will help others suffering from depression.
"If I miss her or I’m feeling really bad, it helps me channel that sadness and make something good out of it instead of just feeling sad," she said.
In the fall semester of her senior year, Holley turned her emotional songwriting journey into a final project for her social justice class.
Dave Johnson, the teacher of the class, recently lost a family member to suicide, so he was able to relate to her sadness and offer guidance as she worked on the project.
"She's incredibly talented. For an 18-year-old kid that is willing to take the most painful situation in her life and put it out there to help others — while it's still raw and she's still figuring it out — is very brave," Johnson said. "Our hope was that it's somewhat therapeutic for her, and more importantly, something that will benefit others."
Devoted to helping others
Holley graduated from Whitefish Bay High School this spring and will attend Syracuse University in the fall. She plans to major in psychology so she can help others with psychological disorders. She said she's also thinking about a minor in music.
Rachael's suicide has also been tough on the girls' mother, Nancy Salmon. She said she hopes Rachael’s story and Holley’s lyrics raise awareness of mental illness, eliminate the stigma associated with it, and let others suffering from mental illness know they are not alone.
“One of the things about mental illness is you can’t see their pain on the surface,” Nancy said. “Rachael was beautiful. When you saw her, she commanded your attention. When she laughed, it was beautiful. When she sang, you just stopped. She was so smart and so funny, but she had poor self-esteem. She didn’t see the value her life had. She had so much potential.”
Nancy Salmon and several other family members have been instrumental in telling Rachel's story and raising awareness of suicide and depression. Nancy plans to speak at an event called Out of the Darkness in October.
Holley has offered to share the proceeds of her music sales with the Charles E. Kubly Foundation, a local public charity whose aim is to prevent suicide, increase awareness of depression, eliminate stigma and help people access resources.