Philadelphia

Montgomery County Teen's Suicide Puts College Campus in Recovery Mode

“He always knew what to do.”

That line brought laughter to the overflow crowd -- hundreds of friends and family members who came to the Philadelphia funeral home the day before Thanksgiving to honor Jacob Marberger. A line uttered by his own father who also found the courage to admit there were times he was jealous of Jacob. Yes, his only child might be difficult at times. Intense. Precocious. But he was brilliant, kind, caring and so articulate, Dr. Jon Marberger seemed a bit afraid his own words might not be the right ones to give us all a holistic sense of this boy’s life.

“Jacob left extensive notes, just wanting to show his love and some instructions and of course some humor in there,” his dad told mourners. “He had dreams.”

While we may never know definitively what led to Marberger’s suicide, when it comes to mental health, “We do know this is the single most vulnerable time in life,” according to Dr. Laurence Steinberg, an expert in the adolescent brain and Temple University’s Distinguished University Professor of Psychology. “Both because of the vulnerability of adolescents as a developmental period but it’s also true because there are a lot of new and challenging experiences that children have to face then that are stressful,” Steinberg said in a conversation about mental health on college campuses.

Jacob shared his last dinner with former college roommate Joseph Swit Nov. 15, the night he abruptly left Washington College, drove home to Cheltenham Township, slipped inside while his parents slept, and then sneaked out with the gun he used to end his life. His six-day disappearance prompted the school’s lockdown then unprecedented evacuation and two-week closure. Some parents, students and administrators were afraid the 19-year-old sophomore might harm others. He vanished as many were just learning from the social media app Yik Yak that he’d been suspended from school, kicked out of his fraternity and resigned his coveted student government position -- consequences of waving an unloaded gun at fraternity members during a drinking episode.

Marberger's family and friends insist that bad decision was the result of what began as a good intention when he made a sexual harassment report against two fellow members of student government. They were reprimanded and Jacob told police and friends he felt "persecuted" by their supporters.

Swit, along with 1,400 other undergrads, returned Sunday to the private liberal arts college in Charlestown, Maryland, sad but ready to move forward. “It'll definitely be tough trying to regain some sort of normalcy with our minds so distracted, but it’s a challenge we'll have to meet.”

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Washington College -- with the help of an outside crisis management firm – was primed to meet the challenge with a plan to emotionally cocoon kids.

“I think generally the students are very happy to return to campus, said Dr. Miranda Altman, director of the school’s counseling center after spending 12 hours immersed in helping students and staff readjust. "They want to resume their studies, they want to see their friends, they want to get back to some sense of normalcy, and routine, which of course is what the healing process involves,” 

The college brought in additional mental health professionals and crisis counselors to help conduct small group sessions and then a campus-wide meeting Sunday. Students were encouraged to evaluate the school’s culture and question whether they’re doing all they can to be compassionate and not judgmental. Administrators don't want students to feel responsible for Jacob's death, but do want them to understand suicides are tragic and also very complicated. Be careful about placing blame, they counseled.

Talk about bullying was not encouraged. According to a source directly involved in his case, the consensus among people who investigated the six difficult weeks before his death is that Marberger was not bullied.

The day before his son’s body was found at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Berks County, Pennsylvania, Jon Marberger wondered if chatter on social media pushed Jacob to a point where he could no longer cope. He’d been back at school for a week after his suspension when the conversation about him on Yik Yak, where you can post anonymously, became vindictive and vile, according to friends.

“That can take a situation from zero to 100 pretty quickly,” said Steinberg, who didn’t talk specifically about Jacob’s case, but in general about how social ostracism is often one of the toxic ingredients for young people who become both suicidal and homicidal.

The other three factors in Steinberg’s toxic mix are access to guns, alcohol or drugs, and usually an underlying mental health problem which may be undiagnosed.

“And often if you took any one of these things out of the equation, it [suicide or homicide] probably wouldn’t have happened,” Steinberg said.

“The more we can educate kids and parents and teachers about this, the more we can alert people to the warning signs in others and encourage people who are having trouble, to seek help.”

Steinberg encouraged parents, students and roommates to be aware:

  • if you have a change in your mood or your behavior that’s significant and lasts two weeks or more, you should probably talk to someone about it
  • if you are feeling depressed and that depression doesn’t go away after a couple weeks, you should talk to someone about it
  • if you have a roommate who’s suffering, encourage them to get help

Washington College will remain diligent, Dr. Altman says, in reminding students to reach out when they need help. Parents can help too. “My best advice, particularly for parents is to help your children know how to cope with disappointment and disillusionment, to try to help to teach your children how to be resilient.”

Altman was one of the first responders in the 2008 Valentine’s Day massacre at Northern Illinois University, where Steven P. Kazmierczak shot close to two dozen people, killing five before killing himself. She believes administrators at Washington College made difficult, but good decisions and the recovery process will ultimately build a stronger, closer-knit community.

Joseph Swit faced Monday’s return to class with an ache called absence but also a sense of commitment to his former roommate and friend. “Jacob was always very businesslike in the way he went about his studies so I think he’d want us to persevere and get back to our routine.”


SUICIDE PREVENTION: If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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