Illustration by Anibal Santos
The parking lots filled as students and faculty began to arrive and prepare for their summer morning classes. From the outside, Saddleback College seemed to be functioning normally at 6:39 a.m. on July 8, 2013, but inside the Business and General Studies building smoke was filling the third floor and Jacob Mathews, 21 was soon found in critical condition after lighting himself and a classroom on fire. He passed away at Western Medical Center later that evening and the coroner declared it a suicide by thermal injuries.
Mathews is one of 1,100 college students lost to suicide each year in the United States.
Saddleback College Police Department Chief Christopher Wilkinson said that on the morning of July 8 Saddleback’s fire notification system, Pyro-Comm, began lighting up red as the sensors in the BGS ceiling detected the smoke moving down the hallways. He sent Officer Michael Looney to respond.
According to Wilkinson, a maintenance employee was the first to call 911, but within minutes, campus police received multiple calls.
“The building was filling up with smoke,” Wilkinson said. “It was very thick smoke, so when the officer arrived at the building, he was at the far end of the building and the smoke had already gone down the hallway to the far end of the building, so you couldn’t go any further. We evacuated the building.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County Fire Authority also responded.
“It was quite busy with the fire department on scene and myself and the officers and then calling in more fire trucks,” Wilkinson said. “They had to find the source of the smoke. My first thought was safety, fire prevention, finding the source of the fire and start evacuating.”
The source of the smoke was traced to Mathews, a student enrolled in a summer psychology class set to start at 7 a.m. that morning in BGS Room 356. He lit the room and himself on fire, which led to his death at 7:13 p.m. that evening according to the coroner report.
“We didn’t know we had a crime, we just knew we had a fire. We looked at the source of the fire and then life safety and prevention and notifying the president and the vice president, because that impacted the whole class day,” Wilkinson said.
Iman Moujtahed, a 22-year-old digital arts major said Mathews was a shy and introverted person who she met during the mental health awareness week at a talk last year.
“I remember when he came,” Moutjahed said. “He sat all the way in the back. He snuck in, and the fact that people don’t want to be associated with something like that and I think a lot of people avoid these talks, because they don’t want to be seen in it, because they don’t want people to think ‘oh that person must have problems or know someone who does.’”
She said she couldn’t believe the things people were saying about him during the summer.
“I remember when it happened people all over were saying ‘oh he wanted to burn down the school’, but that’s ridiculous. He was in a complete state of mind where he was checked out mentally from life and everything around him and that’s not fair to say that he wanted to hurt anyone. He was just not rational anymore.”
Mathews’ grades had been slipping according to his transcripts, but there was no documentation linking the two. Saddleback denied the release of his health records.
Moutjahed said she has struggled with depression herself and has known several people who have dealt with suicide.
“I know a lot of people who have been through a suicide in their family or something and they’re not allowed to say that they have,” she said. “I have a very close friend actually that I work with all the time and her father killed himself and no one knows at all. She won’t tell anyone. Her brother doesn’t even know, they kept it from him.”
Suicide is the third leading cause of death nationally amongst young adults aged 15 to 24. There are 25 suicides a month in Orange County alone according to Jacquelyn Rivera, a licensed clinical social worker for Didi Hirsch. However, by knowing the warning signs, it is 90 percent preventable, Rivera said.
Linda Borders-Killian, psychotherapist and volunteer chief executive officer for the Jacquelyn Bogue Foundation for suicide prevention in Orange County, said there are many stigmas surrounding the topic of mental illness and suicide that make it hard for college students to speak up.
“When you’re in college it’s good to be cool and be popular and be someone that people would want to meet and hang out with and if you’re talking about depression and suicide, then that takes you out of the cool,” Borders-Killian said.
She said students suffering often don’t speak out for fear of being judged by their peers and maybe even their teachers.
“The number one stigma for college students is that to say you’re thinking about suicide puts shame on your name. It’s embarrassing,” she said. “There’s a huge stigma about feeling depression and suicide and talking about it openly.”
Borders-Killian said she has had many encounters with college students facing depression and suicidal thoughts, but one in particular stood out to her recently at the “Send Silence Packing” event at California State University Fullerton in October.
“This boy came up to me and I thought he was a part of the Active Minds Club and we were just talking, and he told me ‘this is a great exhibit and you know I have been struggling for a long time and I just read like two or three stories where the family talks about how much they miss them and how guilty they feel and after reading this and now I feel balanced and in a weird way validated that I’m not the only one going through this and there’s help out there,” Borders-Killian said. “And because of that, I’m not going to hurt myself.’”
She emphasizes connection and how important it is to connect with people especially on a college campus.
“Having an emotional connection to friends and family and being involved in extracurricular activities is one of the most important protective factors for college youths.”
Borders-Killian said signs often appear during college-age years.
“The onset for serious mental illness is college-aged kids,” she emphasized. “So you can have kids that go to college and be fine one day and the next day, they have broken into a psychotic state and nobody knows why.”
She said that it is important to look for warning signs like sadness or hopelessness, sleeping problems, eating disorders and irritability, but also the subtle signs like not wearing a seatbelt or unprotected sex.
Borders-Killian lost her husband Edward to suicide in the early 2000s and he showed many signs that in retrospect were attributed to his depression, she said.
“He would never wear his seatbelt and that was a bone of contention for us,” she said. “That was an early sign that I never even considered.”
According to Borders-Killian, suicide is preventable if the signs are caught early.
“Ninety percent of all suicides are caused by depression and depression is a biological disorder of the brain and the biochemistry of the body,” she said. “It’s a disorder that’s diagnosable and treatable with therapy and with medication. So if depression is treatable, then suicide is 90 percent plus always preventable.”
She said everyone that walks into a counseling office should be evaluated by their past history and their potential for having an onset of depression.
“Nearly one out of every four people walking around campus has considered suicide,” Borders-Killian said. “One of the risk factors is just being in college.”
Benjamin Taitz, a 22-year-old psychology major at CSUF and events planning chair of their Active Minds chapter, survived two suicide attempts when he was in middle school and says, “thank God” to getting the help he needed before a suicide attempt led to completion.
“It started when I was in middle school,” Taitz said. “I was a new student at a new school, where everyone had known each other since kindergarten. The school environment there was not good for me. They were not very genuine and I didn’t really have a lot of friends if any real friends at all.”
Taitz said that in middle school he was clinically depressed and had self-esteem issues that he wasn’t good enough compared to his two brothers who were “brilliant academically.”
“I secluded myself, but for the most part, most people didn’t even realize that something was wrong, because one thing that’s very common with people who suffer from depression and who are suicidal is they put on a mask,” Taitz said. “They present to the world what everyone else wants to see. I was withdrawn internally.”
Taitz’s first attempt occurred in eighth grade. He tried to suffocate himself by means of tying a plastic bag around his head. He said that even his closest family members didn’t know what was wrong until then, but even after they noticed, it still didn’t get much better and he tried again to end his life by drowning himself in the sink.
“One way I can describe the feeling of depression is that it’s a storm inside of you,” Taitz said. “It’s this dark and angst ridden storm that you just want to get out of and you feel so numb that it hurts. When I was struggling, I didn’t think anyone would understand what I was going through, that’s why I kept it hidden inside of me. That’s why I had on a mask.”
According to Taitz, a combination of things pulled him out of depression including changing schools, going to therapy and finding coping mechanisms such as finding things he was good at like singing. He started taking voice lessons that made him feel like he was unique and had a talent outside of his brothers’ shadows.
“If you feel that hurting inside, no matter what, if it’s something small like stress over finals or relationship issues or whatever it is you’re still feeling something and it’s important to talk about it,” Taitz emphasized.
He now works with Active Minds, a nonprofit organization with chapters nationwide that encourages college students to speak up about mental health, to bring awareness and lift the stigmas that surround the topic of mental health.
“Everyone has mental health whether or not you struggle with a mental illness or not,” Taitz said. “You know everyone gets stressed, everyone gets anxious, so we try to promote general mental health as well as educating about a variety of different issues like suicide, eating disorders, depression and so on.”
There are many counselors available to students on the Saddleback campus as well as two psychologists, including Lisa Schenitzki, who is on campus four days a week.
“Our job here is to oversee and supervise and train the psychology interns, so we have a total of six doctoral level psychology students, who are training to become clinical psychologists.”
Schenitzki said all counselors are trained to intervene if someone is thought to be contemplating suicide.
“Someone who is currently considering suicide or someone who has current suicidal ideations, maybe even someone who is planning suicide is something that we consider on this campus a crisis,” Schenitzki said. “We have a crisis team in protocol on campus to manage such crises.”
The damage from the BGS fire will cost approximately $400,000 according to the OC Fire Authority.
The building will be repaired, but the emotional damage of Mathews’ death will still loom over the campus.