The David Farber ASPIRE Center Brings Help, Hope
Out of Tragedy Comes a Place of Healing for Those Impacted by Suicide
By all accounts, David Farber was larger than life. When he walked into a room, people naturally gravitated toward him. He exuded charm, good humor, personality, and positive energy.
“He was the guy you’d fight to get a seat next to at dinner because you were guaranteed a good time,” says his son, Bill Farber.
But behind the jovial smile and easy laugh, David Farber was battling demons. Mental health issues, addiction, and depression took their toll and left him in anguish. In October 2012, the man everyone loved decided to end the pain he hid from the rest of the world. He was 55.
For years, it wasn’t discussed. Suicide, after all, comes with a great stigma. But in 2022, the Farber family decided to turn their loss and grief into something positive by establishing the David Farber ASPIRE (Advancement of Suicide Prevention, Intervention, Research, and Education) Center at Jefferson, a place for healing, research, and hope for those with suicidal ideations and tendencies.
“The David Farber ASPIRE Center is designed to integrate research, education, and clinical practice, all in one unique space,” says Matthew Wintersteen, PhD, director of the Center and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior. “The purpose is to develop innovative research projects and state-of-the-art, evidence-based treatments, and to use our educational tools to advance our understanding of suicide prevention to both the healthcare industry and in broader communities.”
The Center, located on the fourth floor of the Ben Franklin residences at 834 Chestnut Street, honors the man for which it is named and stands as a tribute to the generosity of the Farber family, which established the Vickie and Jack Farber Institute for Neuroscience at Jefferson in 2002. David Farber was the son of Vickie and Jack Farber.
“The David Farber ASPIRE Center is an important contribution to psychiatric care and wellness of behavioral issues,” says Robert Rosenwasser, MD, MBA, the Jewell L. Osterholm Professor and Chair of Neurological Surgery at Kimmel Medical College, and president of the Vickie and Jack Farber Institute for Neuroscience. “Sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring things to light, and the Farber family is bringing this to light so that other people can be helped, and so that we can save as many patients as possible.”
In the United States, suicide is the 10th overall cause of death, with middle-aged men accounting for the largest number of annual deaths; it is the second leading cause of death in individuals ages 13 to 30. Over the past 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60%, with deaths in adolescents and young adults increasing more than any other age group over the past five years.
Rosenwasser likens suicide to high blood pressure—a silent killer.
“Suicide, for many years, wasn’t talked about. You have to know about the problem before you can treat it,” he says, adding that an important factor in treating it is knowing where to get help. “Many times, patients will reach out, but they’re reaching out to people that aren’t equipped to deal with it. The David Farber ASPIRE Center is equipped to deal with these kinds of questions and issues.”
While Wintersteen and his team have been conducting research, treating patients, and training next generation of clinicians in suicide prevention for more than 14 years at Jefferson, the Center brings it all together to allow for a more “cohesive, more integrated approach to suicide prevention and education,” Rosenwasser says.
Wintersteen says the Center “allows for collaboration among scientists, clinicians, and counseling teams in order to take innovative research projects and learn from those and implement what we have discovered into clinical practice.”
One unique aspect of the Center is the family-based approach it takes in treatment.
“Historically, too often somebody would be identified as being at risk for suicide, and we would isolate that person—put them into treatment, work with them closely, but ignore the home context, the family environment, the loved ones around them who may have also very well have been impacted by their suicidal behaviors,” Wintersteen says. “We are taking these opportunities to work with the families to help provide a safe and supportive context, which allows us to have far more sustainable impact once treatment ends.”
For Ellen Farber, David’s sister, the frustration was not knowing how to help her only sibling.
“When I reflect back, I wonder what could I have done?” she says. “When someone commits suicide, the family is left with all the unanswered questions.”
Bill concurs: “When my dad died, I was lost. He was my best friend, my superhero. I couldn’t understand why this person thought that the world would be better without them—that was the furthest thing from the truth.”
For years, no one knew that his father died by suicide, Bill says. The family decided it was time to tell his story in the hopes it would save others.
“The goal is to let people know that they’re not alone, and that they don’t have to make these permanent decisions that affect loved ones… that they can go somewhere and get the help that they need,” he says. “I would’ve done anything to have that for my dad. I think he would still be here if he had somewhere to go and somebody to speak to.”
Bill, who has struggled with many of the same demons as his father, works in the mental health field at a drug and alcohol treatment center, and knows the importance of places like the David Farber ASPIRE Center.
“I’m here, and I’m a survivor,” he says. “I know that without help you can’t get better.”
The idea to create the David Farber ASPIRE Center grew out of an article Jack Farber read in the Sidney Kimmel Medical College alumni magazine, The Bulletin. The article centered on Jefferson’s research and clinical work in the area of suicide prevention. He decided the family’s foundation would make another large investment to support those efforts.
“The Vickie and Jack Farber Institute for Neuroscience was originally founded with a focus on neurodegenerative diseases, including those that my mother’s parents suffered from—Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s,” explains Ellen. “Under Dr. Rosenwasser’s direction, it has expanded to include all sorts of amazing work in the neurosciences—and now psychiatry.”
Jack Farber saw the article around the same time he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Ellen explains. “We knew this would be my father’s last philanthropic act at Jefferson, one that would really make a difference—and we knew we would make it happen in his lifetime.”
The goal, she says, “was for people to know there is a resource in the city that’s associated with a trusted name—Jefferson—and that help is available with a phone call.”
The Center opened in 2022 on October 25—the anniversary of David Farber’s death—with Jack Farber on hand to help cut the ribbon. He passed away two months later.
“The gift that the Farber Family Foundation provided for the David Farber ASPIRE Center is incredibly important to the overall work that we’re doing,” Wintersteen says, noting that the Center’s three-pronged approach to addressing suicide—research, clinical care, and education—is contingent upon funding through philanthropy.
“On the research side, there are pilot projects that need support in order to allow us to obtain larger government funding,” he says. “On the clinical side, it allows us to see patients and families who may not otherwise have the ability to see us; it allows us to work with folks who may be underinsured or uninsured because everybody should have access to this kind of care.
“And on the training side, philanthropy allows the Center to educate more professionals in treating individuals and families who are struggling with suicide risk,” he says.
Ellen stresses that ongoing financial support from grateful patients, families, and foundations is crucial the important work being done at the Center.
“This (suicide) is something that’s not going away, and continued investment in the David Farber ASPIRE Center is going to be needed,” she says. “Suicide touches the lives of so many. It’s our goal that others join us in what we’ve started—to join together as a community to make a difference and help future generations.”
The Center, says Bill, is designed to be a place that radiates warmth—one that has his father’s aura.
“When you first walk into the Center there is a plaque with my father’s picture on it,” Bill says. “That’s to let people know that even a guy who looks like that—who’s smiling, who seems like everything is great in his life—struggled so much to get the help he needed. I want people to go to the Center, and know that there’s help, know that there’s a place where they can go and feel good about themselves.”
Wintersteen adds: “We are a place that offers hope to those who feel hopeless, help to those who feel helpless, and we inspire meaning for people who feel that life has no meaning. It is not just about surviving at the David Farber ASPIRE Center, we’re here to help people thrive.”
In honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10 the David Farber ASPIRE Center will hold an open house from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. All are welcome to visit the facility.