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A tragic end for one-time Nature Coast Tech soccer star

SPRING HILL — As opposing players closed in, Sarah Berberian prowled the goalkeeper's territory like a panther. When the ball was kicked, Sarah stretched her 5-foot-4 frame until she crashed to the turf and snared it.

Soccer was her life, and she sought out college scholarships in the sport.

She never got one and found herself out of school and seeking a new destiny in the Air Force.

There was a problem: a Department of Defense policy forbids applicants who are on psychiatric drugs.

Sarah had been taking those drugs since she had a psychotic break in 2005, when she started talking incoherently after a soccer game.

Sarah, who had not had mental health issues prior to this, was taken into custody under the state's Baker Act. She wound up in All Children's Hospital, where she spent more than a week. Doctors prescribed various psychiatric medications over the years.

Though she appeared to have adjusted — she was a star goalkeeper at Nature Coast Technical High School and maintained a 3.0 grade-point average there and at Polk State College — her therapy and medication did not square with the Defense Department policy.

With a future in soccer uncertain and her backup plan for the military also derailed, she became more despondent.

On April 6, she disappeared just before she was to attend a therapy session. Her family searched the area around her Spring Hill home for hours.

Her father found her in the woods behind their house. She had shot herself in the heart next to a big oak tree where she had played as a child.

Sarah Berberian was 20.

• • •

Sarah's situation touches on a growing and complex debate about the use of psychiatric drugs in the military.

"Prescription drug use is on the rise,'' an Army report stated in February, which also linked prescription drugs to one-third of active-duty suicides last year.

"Before the second war in Iraq, soldiers weren't given psychiatric drugs," said Dr. Peter R. Breggin, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and former full-time consultant at the National Institutes of Mental Health who has authored books critical of psychiatric drugs. "Now 17 percent of soldiers in Afghanistan are on psychiatric drugs."

Though active duty soldiers are increasingly using the medications, the Defense Department in April 2010 released an order that screens out applicants with a "history of depressive disorders."

"The way I understand the policy, if the applicant is currently taking antidepressants you are not qualified to join the Air Force," said Air Force spokeswoman Christa D'Andrea.

People on psychiatric drugs who want to join the military sometimes will go off their meds, which can lead to problems, said Dr. Anthony Ng, a past president of the American Association for Emergency Psychiatry who directs psychiatric emergency services at a hospital in Maine.

"I have seen a lot of patients in my crisis center because of that," Ng said. "They have been off their meds because they want to get into the military."

• • •

Sarah was shy but could be assertive. At 10, she balked at a request to go door-to-door for a charity, then came up with a twist: For the $20 people donated, she would rake their yard.

She had a silly side, and might imitate Urkel from Family Matters by pulling up her pants to her rib cage. She and her sister, Kaylah, would sit around giggling at the silliest of things. But there was nothing frivolous about soccer. "She pursued that like you would a career," said Kaylah, 22. "She loved it, every second of it."

At Nature Coast, she started her junior year with 35 saves, including three shutouts. Later that year, she smashed her pinkie in a game and taped it to her ring finger. The injury ended her season, but she finished the game.

• • •

The psychotic episode in 2005 came out of the blue. Outside of being painfully shy at times, Sarah had been a typical teen.

But her behavior took a frightening turn after she played in a soccer game in Sarasota one afternoon.

"She was hallucinating, I would say," said her mother, Patricia Berberian.

After her release from the hospital, she feared people would think she was crazy, something she struggled with until her death.

A series of personal and family setbacks deepened her malaise. A particularly hard blow came when she learned she had missed out on a soccer scholarship. Things got worse when her military hopes also were dashed.

Without a career track, she moved in with her parents, who recently had lost their meat market business and declared bankruptcy. She felt like a burden.

Sarah, who had been so active on the soccer field, grew agitated with her stagnation.

"She said, 'As someone with my level of activity, this is just not acceptable,' " her mother said.

• • •

On April 6, Michelle Berberian arrived home to take her sister to a 10 a.m. therapy appointment. But Sarah, who had seemed unusually quiet that morning, had slipped away.

Michelle called her mother at her janitorial job. She rushed home. At 11:17 a.m., they called the Hernando County Sheriff's Office and asked deputies to help. They feared the worst.

Harry Berberian found his daughter seven hours later. She had shot herself with a .22-caliber semiautomatic her father had given her on a birthday.

A rosary lay nearby. She left no note.

• • •

Patricia Berberian wonders if her daughter went off her meds. The lack of a suicide note with an explanation compounds the mystery and the pain.

While she has been in mourning, some friends have been offering her help that she finds ironic: They offer their Xanax, their Prozac and their Valium.

"I say, 'No, this is grief.' You have to work through it."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.


Sarah Louise Berberian

Born: March 18, 1991

Died: April 6, 2011

Survivors: parents Harry and Patricia Berberian; sisters Michelle and Kaylah.

Celebration of life: To be arranged for this summer.

If you need help

If you are considering suicide, please call 911 or 211 to reach the nearest crisis center or 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

A tragic end for one-time Nature Coast Tech soccer star 04/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 10:48pm]
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