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A young girl's suicide leads her parents to seek all the reasons why : Averting Teen-Age Tragedy

March 10, 1987|DANA PARSONS

In her pictures, everyone saw the smile and the bright-eyed promise. No one saw the mask.

Like many teen-agers, 17-year-old Lisa White seemed to have it all going for her. She had a 3.3 grade-point average and talked about going to UCLA. She was a cheerleader. She was involved in play production and speech competition. She had a part-time job. Besides, she was pretty and her Asian looks set her apart from the crowd.

But also like many teen-agers seemingly on the threshold of exciting potential, Lisa White was hiding a lot of inner torment.

On Jan. 5, the first day of her last semester at Brea-Olinda High School, Lisa slipped off her mask for the last time. She took an overdose of prescription pills at home and, never regaining consciousness, died three days later. The Orange County coroner's office is handling her death as a suicide but still awaiting a final toxicology report.

Lisa's friends, many of whom maintained a hospital vigil, mourned her death. Her parents, Ed and Ethel Shapiro of Brea, have asked themselves repeatedly why they didn't pick up on the signs of her depression.

But instead of surrendering to the finality of Lisa's suicide, the Shapiros took action.

The result of their efforts will be two all-school assemblies today for Brea-Olinda students. This evening, another assembly will be held at the school for parents.

The Shapiros hope the assemblies will be the forerunner of an ongoing program to help students, parents and teachers better recognize the warning signs of severe depression and low self-esteem that sometimes lead teen-agers to suicide.

"The commonality in a lot of these problems," Shapiro said, "seems to be that teen-agers are growing up, wanting separation from their parents, not wanting to really reveal themselves to their parents. There's a lot more pressure on them, with things like needing better grades to get into certain colleges and with body-image problems. That all seems to lead to low self-esteem and a greater degree of depression."

Orange County has averaged about eight suicides a year over the last five years in the 13-to-17-year-old age group, a county Health Care Agency official said. The state doesn't break down its suicide statistics for that age group.

The Shapiros weren't unaware of the problems teen-agers face. More than once, Lisa had pointed out to her parents girls who were bulimic--victims of an eating disorder characterized by binge eating and then self-induced vomiting. With their easily hidden disorder, bulimics are almost always depressed and may suffer from other psychological disorders.

But it wasn't until early last summer that Mrs. Shapiro caught Lisa in the same binge-purge cycle and confronted her with it. Lisa admitted to it and saw a therapist.

The Shapiros now say they misjudged the depth of their daughter's depression. And, they said in an interview last week in their home, it is that anguish that propelled them to act after Lisa's death.

The Shapiros have limited their public conversations about Lisa, preferring to concentrate on their efforts with the school assemblies.

"I was crushed by it (her death)," said Ethel Shapiro. "She was my flesh and blood. What I'm doing is still searching. Why am I feeling this way? How can I go on? My focus is on my family and Ashlee (the Shapiros' 4-year-old daughter), but Lisa is still there," she said, pointing to her heart.

Little Satisfaction

Citing Lisa's roster of accomplishments, Mrs. Shapiro said: "She was all the things you'd want your daughter to be. But that's not what it's all about. Those achievements are of little satisfaction. They're only there for a moment."

Instead, she said, parents should let their children know "we love them for who and what they are, not for achievements."

Ed Shapiro is Lisa's stepfather and a Brea osteopath. "All those kids who came to the hospital, we watched them pray, watched them cry," he said. "And then we heard different kids talking about other kids. That this wonderful kid who was sitting there reading the Bible and crying about Lisa . . . was a drunk and cheated in school to get good grades because of pressure his parents put on him to go to such-and-such a college."

Hearing such travails was somewhat revelatory for the Shapiros. "It was the first time I said to myself, 'These kids are really nice kids,' " Shapiro said. "Before, they were just friends of Lisa's. Then you listen to them . . . You should hear all these things we heard about what kids do to themselves."

What they also heard, much to their dismay, was that the teen-agers felt they didn't have anyone to talk to. Some told the Shapiros things they couldn't tell their parents. The Shapiros couldn't help but wonder whether Lisa felt caught in the same bind.

They began investigating what the school district did to detect such severe psychological and emotional problems. They found that, like most school districts, Brea-Olinda doesn't have an intensive program to target seriously depressed students.

Led to Other Questions

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