Darkness and "Leit"

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Jason Leitmeyer When Jason Leitmeyer set out on his training run last Monday, in many ways it was just like any other day of practice for the junior on the Muhlenberg cross country and track and field teams. But in one way it was completely different – and it was about to get more so.

A half hour before practice, Leitmeyer (right) and the rest of the track and field teams were addressed by one of their teammates, whose ongoing battle with depression has kept him from normal activities at Muhlenberg this year, both academically and athletically. In an emotional, tear-filled conversation, the popular teammate talked about the importance of not taking what you have for granted and reaching out to others who may be struggling.

Little did Leitmeyer know that he would shortly put that advice into practice.

Rather than running with the rest of the team, Leitmeyer decided to run by himself that day because he wasn't feeling his best. He was on his way back to Muhlenberg, about a mile-and-a-half from campus near the Allentown Municipal Golf Course, when he heard a distant crying.

Investigating, he saw a girl sitting in a crouched position on the ledge of an overpass, her feet dangling over the side.

“At first I was sort of confused and alarmed,” he recalled. “When a girl is crying and that close to a drop, my first thought is that she was suicidal.

Jason Leitmeyer “There was also a split second of doubt,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to intrude on a situation where I might make too much of it or make it worse.”

But with his teammate’s talk still fresh in his mind, Leitmeyer, who is a resident assistant at Muhlenberg, decided to help – and get help. He found two elderly women walking nearby and told them of the situation. Together, they decided to talk to the girl, who Leitmeyer estimated was 11 or 12 years old.

“I wanted to be reassured that if I was going to do something, there would be people with me,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what to do, and it’s always good to have other people there so you feel less the weight of responsibility.”

None of the three had a cell phone, so one of the women went off to ask a woman walking her dog to call the Allentown police. For about the next 20 minutes, Leitmeyer and the woman who remained talked to the girl.

“She would sometimes answer and sometimes not because she was crying hysterically,” Leitmeyer said. “I didn’t talk at first because I was trying to figure out what was the best thing to say.”

When he did talk, Leitmeyer, who says he had bouts with depression in middle school, focused on trying to develop a relationship with the girl. He learned that the girl was at odds with her parents and was indeed suicidal. She had been to counselors, but didn’t feel like they helped.

“I said, ‘I’m not a professional but I’d love to listen to you,’” said the psychology and music double major. “I don’t know if her parents really understand all the things she’s going through. I also told her that I know what it’s like to be depressed, and it does get better.”

Leitmeyer and the woman made a small breakthrough about 15 minutes in, when the girl finally told them her name after repeated inquiries.

“I asked her, ‘Do you remember my name?’, and she said ‘Jason.’ I thought that was really a sweet moment, one of the only moments I felt we weren’t just talking to her and she was actually listening.”

StepUp Mules
The Muhlenberg Athletic Department and teams have been engaged in a bystander intervention program called StepUP! Mules since August. Click here for more information.
To Leitmeyer, it seemed as if the girl was inching closer and closer to the drop as they talked. The older woman asked the girl to turn around and face in the other direction, but when she refused, Leitmeyer said they considered pulling her off the ledge.

Finally a policeman arrived, grabbed her from behind and sat her in the back of a van.

“She was squirming and flailing her arms – from the way she reacted I’m glad we didn’t do that,” Leitmeyer said.

Leitmeyer completed his run, and upon returning to campus he recounted his incredible story to his teammates, who thought he had gotten lost. He also ran on the track with head cross country coach Steve Finley, talking about everything that had happened in the last couple of hours.

“That was a good kind of debriefing,” he said. “During my run I was thinking a lot about the conversation [with the teammate before practice]. I’m sure I still would have helped her if that talk didn’t happen, but it was definitely in the forefront of my mind.”

Leitmeyer kept himself occupied for the rest of the evening before turning in, and it wasn’t until the next day in classes, and as news of his act spread across campus, that he began to reflect on what he did.

“I felt a little sad,” he said. “It was a deep sadness for people who are going through depression or an emotional struggle that they feel they can’t get out of. I was happy I could do something, and it made me feel incredibly fortunate to be where I am in life.”

It also brought into focus his career path; his plan now is to get a master’s and do “something in counseling or social work.” And as happy as he was to have possibly saved the girl’s life, he was just as happy for his struggling teammate.

“He felt like he had an impact on me, or a greater purpose,” Leitmeyer said. “I’m sure when you’re depressed you’re searching for that purpose. Maybe he can have an impact on others, and that’s a reason to keep fighting.”

The Muhlenberg Counseling Services Office offers this website as a resource for tips on how to help someone who is suicidal: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/suicide_prevention.htm. The national suicide hotline is 1-800-273-TALK.