Teens' impulse to die can lurk undetected; A vanished girl, a car left on the Bay Bridge, parents in anguish

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's been nearly a month since anyone saw Barbie Morgan. The 16-year-old wore a red party dress to a disco dance at Severna Park High School and invited girlfriends to sleep over at her house that night. But she never returned home.

The day after the dance, police found her car on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, not far from where her friend had jumped six months earlier and survived.

Barbie's parents spent Christmas and New Year's waiting for her body to wash up.

Monday, still without a body, they held a memorial service. Classmates and teachers filled Woods Memorial Church in Severna Park, no longer able to hope Barbie had just run away. Or been kidnapped.

Brandi Care, 17, a former Homecoming Princess and class president, may understand better than anyone the demons of popularity and pressure that might have driven Barbie over the railing of the bridge. The girls were both National Honor Society inductees and field hockey teammates who played the same defensive position.

In May, Brandi climbed over the same bridge railing that lured Barbie, looked at the water 130 feet below, then stepped off. Unlike most jumpers, she survived with only bruises.

"It got to a point where I felt all my achievements and hard work meant nothing," said Brandi. "At that point, the best I could do was to just go quietly and make a statement that life has pressures and to be yourself."

In some perfectionist teens, that kind of underlying depression can go unnoticed.

"The stars are so busy being successful and being rewarded for being successful, they don't either self-diagnose or communicate their depression to adults," said Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. "Their drives and strivings are problematic in that they are extreme."

Brandi remembers that the water of the bay felt like a floor of bricks when she hit.

"I remember my stomach dropping and I was screaming," she said. "My whole body was in pain, I was so confused.

"I was so sure that it would work. I was so sure I would die."

Authorities said the falling body could have been going 60 to 80 mph. Brandi lost feeling in her legs. Her back felt like it was impaled on a bed of sharp nails.

A boat -- part of the fleet of spectators for the Whitbread Round the World Race -- drew close and a life vest floated toward her. She hesitated, then reached for it, deciding to live.

Twenty-five other people since 1990 have died jumping off the 4-mile-long span.

While teen suicide in the Baltimore area is extremely rare, according to state medical examiner statistics, nationwide the rate of suicide for people 15 to 24 has increased from 4.5 to 13.5 per 100,000 over the changing times from 1950 to 1990.

Among the most successful of students, as measured by a poll last year of 3,123 high achievers honored in "Who's Who Among American High School Students," as many as 46 percent responded that they knew someone their own age who had tried to commit suicide.

Some 24 percent of the respondents said they had considered suicide; the major reasons they gave for those thoughts were "general depression" and "school pressures."

But Barbie Morgan left no note, no clues as to why she may have leapt off the bridge.

"It is not going to really hit home until we find her," said Barbie's father, Walter. "I don't see us ever recovering from this. Things will never be the same."

Friends describe Barbie as a funny, vivacious, intelligent girl with long, curly blond hair. She was tall, almost 6 feet, and active in church. She loved math and science, and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. Her grade point average this academic year was above 4.0.

"She always had a positive attitude -- whenever you were down, she would make you laugh," said Kim Lawton, 16, a junior also on the field hockey team, which won a state championship in November.

Much the same could be said about Brandi, when she jumped last May.

The petite brunette says she is telling her story now in the hopes that it may save others. She, too, sat through classes and giggled with friends, never revealing how sad she was, how much she wanted to die.

She spent weeks planning how to do it, she says. She didn't know where to buy a gun, thought hanging would hurt too much. She was worried that pills might not work quickly enough. If she threw herself in front of a car, she feared becoming a paraplegic.

"Jumping off a bridge seemed relatively quick and painless," said Brandi. Actually, jumping is one of the least common ways of attempting suicide -- accounting for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all such deaths, according to the American Association of Suicidology.

The day she picked, coincidentally, was the same as the annual Bay Bridge Walk and the Whitbread race. She had friends sleep over the night before. After taking them home, she began reading a book for English class.

Her mother was at church making a scrapbook of family vacations.

Brandi couldn't concentrate. Her life seemed overwhelming. Everyone thought she was so together -- a "role model," her guidance counselor called her -- but she needed to escape.

"I felt that a role model should always have a happy front on and that role models don't have problems," she said.

Now, she wonders what was going through Barbie's mind.

The facts are scarce: On the day of the dance, Barbie spent the afternoon at her part-time job, went home, changed into her short, red dress and went to the dance. The theme was 1970s disco.

"[We talked] at the beginning of the dance," recalled Kim, the field hockey teammate. "She always seemed so happy and together with everything."

Her friends watched as Barbie left early. She waited in the car to give them a ride home. She had planned a sleepover at her house after the dance. Her friends were waiting for her to call before coming over. She never did.

"Barbie was a very responsible girl, she always called and let us know where she was," said Barbie's father. "We didn't get a phone call and, as her curfew drew closer, we did not have any inkling it would be anything like this."

Upset about boys at dance

Her friends later told police that Barbie was upset because the boys she wanted to dance with would not dance with her.

On Monday, at school, her disappearance was announced over the intercom. Students sat at their desks and cried. Some went home sick. Barbie's classmates donned yellow ribbons to honor her. They held a candlelight vigil.

"It was pretty bad; people didn't really understand why she felt the way she did," said Nick Pellicani, who was in Barbie's honors English class. "She didn't know how many friends she had, a lot more than she knew. You say the name 'Barbie' and everyone knew her."

As Severna Park High mourned Barbie, one student was missing: Brandi Care. She returned for her senior year but left after a few weeks. It was too hard there, she said. It reminded her of life before the jump.

A life where she had to be perfect.

Brandi is now being home-schooled and working as a waitress in Baltimore. She was accepted at Virginia Tech for next fall. She plans to major in hospitality and tourism.

Relief in anonymity

She finds relief in the "anonymity" of her new life, she says. Her old demons haunt her sometimes, but now, she fights back: She takes medication for depression and visits a psychiatrist.

"I want people to realize that depression is difficult to define," said Brandi, as she fiddled with the Christmas stickers affixed to her red nails. "You can't control your feelings. That's what I didn't know when I jumped."

She understands her illness better now, she said.

Although suicide experts believe Barbie may have been influenced by Brandi's jump, Barbie's parents see no connection. They believe it was coincidental, if indeed their daughter jumped off the bridge.

Yet they, too, want to stop others who may feel the same urge -- they are trying to persuade authorities to erect a barrier on the bridge, similar to those on the Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower.

"Often times when you have suicidal behavior among students at the same school, there is obviously knowledge," said Berman, of the suicidology association. "There may be notoriety, but simply, the first can in effect give permission for the second."

Three weeks after her fateful jump, Brandi went back to the bridge. She just stared right at the spot.

"When I first passed that spot, I felt an incredible feeling of relief, that it is over and I am still alive," said Brandi.

"I am just so happy with myself and what I am doing now. I feel like the most important person is myself."

What to look for

These are signs that a teen-ager may be suffering from clinical depression. Studies show that 15 percent of people with clinical depression will attempt suicide.

Feelings of sadness or irritability.

Loss of interest in school.

Changes in weight or appetite.

Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless.

Inability to concentrate, remember things or make decisions.

Fatigue or loss of energy.

Restlessness or decreased activity noticed by others.

Thoughts of suicide or death.

Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed.

Giving away belongings.

Loss of interest in friends.

Crying over insignificant things.

If you or someone you know exhibits these symptoms, call the Maryland 24-hour Youth Crisis Hotline at 1-800-422-0009.

Source: National Mental Health Association

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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