It was a historic moment and Mason teenager Jacob King was supposed to be there.
When 79 million TV viewers watched the Mason High School marching band’s first Rose Parade performance, the senior band drummer had wanted to join his friends there, basking in the brilliant pageantry of the New Year’s Day event.
Once thrilled about joining his bandmates in Pasadena, California, King instead had unexpectedly decided not to make the trip.
On Jan. 1 back home in Mason, Jacob even avoided watching the national TV broadcast.
What should have been a crowning moment in his young life was instead the latest in a series of painful reminders of his descent into self-isolating depression.
Two weeks later, in the middle of the night, Jacob would take the ultimate action to remove himself from everyone he loved by killing himself in his family’s Mason home.
Jacob’s suicide was a horrific end note not only to his family but also for many members of the close-knit Mason band community, who had struggled too to raise Jacob from despair and his downward spiral into depression.
But none fought harder than his mother Marybeth King.
With growing fear since last August, she watched her 17-year-old son push her and other family away.
Puzzled by erratic behavior that included late-night walks, lightening quick mood swings, mumbling monotones punctured by explosive accusations and the inexplicable dropping of once close friends, King scrambled to do something — anything — to bring her boy back to a reality that once shone bright for the teen.
And then there were his morbid jokes — quickly dismissed as just kidding around by Jacob — about killing himself.
Hindsight now brings painful clarity to these personality changes in her youngest child.
“Jacob told me time and again that he was just joking,” King says in an exclusive interview with the The Journal-News.
“And after many false alerts from his friends — they would call and say that Jacob had run away or was going to kill himself on Sunday or something — when he was, in fact fine and sitting in his room.”
“I would confront him about plans to kill himself, and he would deny and laugh and say that it was just a joke. I started to not take his threats seriously. I thought he just wanted attention,” says his mother.
TEEN SUICIDE: A NATIONAL PROBLEM
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. It results in approximately 4,600 deaths each year.
CDC officials also report youth in grades 9–12 in public and private schools in the United States (U.S.) found that 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey
The reasons behind suicide are many and vary for each young person. The warning signs are fewer in number, says University of Cincinnati Professor Keith King, no relation to Jacob.
King, who is also director of health promotion and education at UC’s College of Education and author of a recent research article on teen suicide for “The Prevention Researcher,” says the Mason mother did nothing wrong and much right in trying to save her son.
Parents of teens need to be vigilant and open to the help of their children’s peers who can pass along tips or direct warnings of suicide contemplation, says the UC professor.
Growing isolation is a warning sign, he says.
Staying connected to family and peers “is not a 100 percent guarantee to preventing teen suicide but family and social connections are the number one ways to prevent it,” he says.
Participating in the popular Mason marching band and the school’s music program kept Jacob plugged in after the unexpected death of his father at the beginning of his sophomore year.
Marybeth arranged counseling for him and sometimes his depression improved and seemed to disappear only to quickly return, fired by no apparent triggers.
Despite the periodic brushes of happiness, the overall curve of the last two years of his young life was downward.
But now, looking back, Marybeth suspects Jacob believed — contrary to all efforts of his family and friends — that he was unloved or unworthy of love.
“He had to know people loved him,” King says with watery eyes. “But in his mind he didn’t – or he didn’t love himself – I don’t know and I still can’t understand what he was thinking.”
On the still heavily viewed Facebook memorial page for Jacob one student posted a quote: “Depression is a prison where you are both the suffering prisoner and the cruel jailer.”
PEERS USED SOCIAL MEDIA TO ALERT MOTHER
Social media — often and rightfully demonized as a tool of abuse and bullying among teens — helped Marybeth track her youngest child’s decline.
And it almost saved Jacob’s life.
Jacob’s mother was alerted by social media to many of her son’s deepening slides into despair by his friends sharing her alienated son’s not-so-veiled references to suicide.
The texts depicting his growing hopelessness prompted Marybeth to take extraordinary measures to save her boy.
These culminated with a surprise 7 a.m. intervention by her, school officials and Jacob’s counselor at Mason High School last fall.
She moved quickly to set it up because of a legal deadline that would shackle her forever was approaching – Jacob’s 18th birthday was coming on Oct. 15. Once a legal adult, Marybeth would have no legal way of compelling her adult son into more extensive treatment and counseling.
On a school morning Jacob was shepherded into one of the high school’s conference rooms and forced to listen and feel the full, collective brunt of caring from the key adults in his life.
“It didn’t work,” recalls Marybeth.
“He was mad. He said ‘I was having a fine day and you ruined it,’” she recalls.
Jacob accused them of ambushing him, “which we kind of did but we had to,” she said.
Fuming, his mother then drove him to Children’s Medical Center for medical tests and three days of observation.
“That day was the hardest day of my life. He hated me. He told me he hated me over and over and over again,” she says.
Medical tests showed no underlying causation for his behavior or mood swings. Observed by doctors for three days, Jacob adopted a healthy façade, says Marybeth who witnessed it through mother’s eyes.
“He turned on the charm and he was a model patient,” she says.
“I wanted to believe he was okay. He said ‘I don’t belong here, there are kids cutting themselves and I’m not like them,’” she recalls.
“But it was false hope. You’re not going to be suddenly cured,” her voice dropping sadly at the memory.
But upon his release, Jacob did improve, if only for a short time.
November meant Mason marching band’s most-anticipated appearance in the prestigious Grand Nationals high school band competition in Indianapolis.
The preparation for the contest temporarily energized Jacob.
Now, looking back, Marybeth says that event took on the importance of the New Year’s Day Rose Parade for Jacob, which he had begun waffling about his participating in.
“His behavior changed more after Grand Nationals. That was his Rose Parade,” she says.
After November, Jacob withdrew from attending Mason High School and instead finished his final, senior year credits through online classes before the school’s Christmas break.
“Once he finished school it was spiraling down. Without school structure, it isolated him more. He started sleeping all day and staying up all night … but he was a teenager, they do that,” she says.
Jacob moved his futon bed and TV into a basement drum room his father had built.
“I’d come home from work and go down there to say hello and he’d say ‘what do you want?’”
“So I’d just go back upstairs.”
“When you have a kid like this, you want to push them but you don’t know how much to push them. And is that going to be the push that pushes him over or do you just leave him be? Does he need his space? It’s hard to know what to do.”
Around 2 a.m. Friday Jan. 15, Jacob sent a series of texts to his friends knowing they’d be asleep for that day’s school. Jacob told them he was going to kill himself.
At 4:48 a.m. Jacob’s mother was awakened by Mason Police officers — alerted by Jacob’s friends — knocking on her door. They found Jacob’s body downstairs.
Oddly, his final social media messages were inter-laced with encouragements for his living friends he was about to leave behind.
“He wrote to one friend ‘you can do anything,’” she said.
To another, she says, he wrote “I’m the coward. I’m the one who gave up. But I don’t want you to give up and I want you to know you can do anything you want to do.”
THE BAND: JACOB’S “OTHER FAMILY”
Mason band members, especially during the months of practices, drills and preparations for the Grand Nationals and the Rose Parade are as close as family.
And that bond remains even after Jacob’s funeral.
In the weeks since Jacob took his life, bandmates have dotted the social media page with photos of them wearing special tribute T-shirts to Jacob. A large bass drum is depicted on the shirt’s back with “KING.”
On the front: “Family Is Forever.”
“Mason High School Marching Band is a family, and it has been heart-breaking for us to lose one of our members,” said Bob Bass, band director who trained Jacob since his freshman year.
Bass had helped convinced Jacob not to withdraw from the Rose Parade trip only to have the teen suddenly reverse himself days later.
“I’m proud of our kids’ accomplishments, but I am even prouder of how they support and care for one another. As a band family, we continue to lean on each other, and celebrate Jacob’s life - rather than dwelling on his death,” said Bass.
Like family, many bandmates are still stunned by his unexpected death.
Tracey Carson, spokeswoman for Mason Schools, says “Jacob’s death hit all of us very hard, and left us with so many questions that can never be answered.”
Carson praised Marybeth’s courage in going public.
“This tragedy has meaning because of his mom and friends’ efforts to remove the stigma around mental illness. So many people in our schools are vibrant, sensitive, brilliant — and dealing with depression or anxiety. It is humbling to know that during this incredibly painful time, Marybeth is choosing to honor Jacob’s legacy by helping our community navigate these important — and potentially life-saving — conversations.”
Though he never made the band’s pinnacle of fame at the Rose Parade, Jacob’s membership in the group may have prolonged his life, Marybeth speculates.
“If he didn’t have them (band members) he might have gotten lost in his own head a long time ago. The band really helped him be part of that group. The band kids did everything right. They reached out. They told me and they kept in contact with me,”
After Jacob’s funeral, dozens of band members encircled the grieving mother in a tearful, group hug whose memory still shakes her.
“They did everything they could.”
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