by Rebekah Benoit
Christmas was always young Morgan Dunbar’s favourite holiday. The 13-year old loved everything about the holiday, from decorating the tree and wrapping gifts to spending time with her family, which included her parents, three older siblings and her identical twin sister Bailey.
“Morgan would start decorating at the end of November, bake all through December. Christmas was Morgan’s holiday,” remembers her mom, Natasha Dunbar.
The spirit of the Christmas season was a perfect fit with Morgan Dunbar’s personality. “Morgan was very much the type of kid who loved to help other people. She was very soft-hearted,” her mother says of her youngest child, born just seven minutes after her twin sister. “She loved cheerleading and dancing, and she was starting to learn to play the guitar. If she wanted to learn something new, she just picked it up and tried it. She really was that typical girl next door.”
Growing up in New Brunswick, Morgan’s sensitive, caring nature made her a target for cruelty and bullying from an early age. “When she was in elementary school, she never hid her feelings and she would cry if someone hurt her. If somebody noticed that, they’d say something to her. She was made fun of,” says Dunbar, adding that the more outgoing Bailey was her sister’s defender, protecting her twin from the bullies that always seemed to target Morgan.
Though the bullying at times made school tough for Morgan, she had her hobbies, including cheerleading, dance and music, as well as her sister to help make things easier. When the family decided to make the move from St. John to Fort McMurray in the fall of 2013, Morgan was excited, seeing the city as a chance to start over and leave the cruel remarks and taunts behind her.
“Both she and Bailey were beyond excited,” says Dunbar. “Morgan was like, ‘This is a fresh start. Nobody here knows me, there’s no bullying. I can be me.’”
The two girls began school in October of 2013. Initially, things seemed to be going well – Morgan quickly made friends and seemed happy and confident in her new surroundings.
But within weeks, things began to change. Dunbar noticed that the normally talkative Morgan began to withdraw, isolating herself from the rest of the family. “Morgan was always cuddly. She’d come home from school and cuddle beside me, and tell me about her day and her friends,” Dunbar recalls. “That stopped. She started hanging out in her room more. I’d ask her if she was coming down to watch a movie with us, and she’d say, “No, I’m going to read.’”
The Dunbars chalked up the change in Morgan’s behaviour to typical teenage moodiness, but unbeknownst to the couple, Morgan was keeping a secret. The bullying she had faced in New Brunswick had begun again in Fort McMurray, only this time it was much worse.
Morgan had become the target of cyberbullying. Dunbar says on the young girl’s Facebook page, next to photos of the bright-eyed teenager clowning with her sister and cuddling with her young niece, cruel taunts and insults were posted, claiming that no one at her new school liked her and telling her to go back to New Brunswick.
Her mom says Morgan told no one, enduring the bullying by withdrawing and becoming more quiet. When her parents questioned her, Morgan was unwilling to tell her parents what was going on. “It was like pulling teeth,” Dunbar says. “She didn’t want anyone to get in trouble, so she didn’t want to say anything. She said, ‘No, Mom, I don’t want them to get in trouble, it will just make it worse.”
Finally, Morgan admitted to her parents what had been going on. When Dunbar saw the hateful messages on her daughter’s Facebook page, she immediately deactivated Morgan’s profile.
“For her safety, we took [her Facebook profile] away from her, and in her mind she understood that, but at the same time, now she couldn’t talk to her friends back home,” says Dunbar.
Without Facebook to provide a lifeline of communication to friends back home in New Brunswick, Dunbar says Morgan felt even more isolated. And the deactivation of her Facebook profile didn’t stop the relentless harassment.
“The next morning, she got up and there was a text message on her cell phone,” her mom says.
Feeling more alone than ever, Morgan set up a new Facebook profile without her parents’ knowledge, blocking it from her parents using the site’s privacy settings. The page allowed her to communicate with friends back home, but it also provided Morgan with a sounding board for how she was feeling. Her posts, which became increasingly desperate and sad as the weeks and months wore on, would have provided an enormous red flag into their daughter’s inner torment and deteriorating mental health, had the Dunbars been able to see them.
“She said things like, ‘I’ve given up,’ ‘I don’t want to live anymore,’ ‘Nobody likes me,’” says Dunbar, who only saw the posts months later. She believes Morgan didn’t come to her because she didn’t want to add to her mother’s distress about the bullying. “That’s the kind of kid she was. If she knew someone was hurting, it made her hurt more. She didn’t want her family to know everything she was going through,” says Dunbar.
By May, the Dunbars were seriously worried about their child’s mental health. Morgan was clearly depressed. She’d become even more quiet and withdrawn, had stopped eating and had started cutting herself. The Dunbars took her to their family doctor, where they received a referral to a psychiatrist. Surprised to learn that Fort McMurray had no child psychiatrist, they took their daughter home and waited for a phone call.
The family was shocked by how difficult it was to find mental health support for their child, who was clearly in trouble. “Mental health refused her because she was only 13. The psychiatrists here in town said they weren’t equipped to deal with anyone under the age of 16,” Dunbar recalls of the uphill struggle to find help for Morgan. A desperate Dunbar left messages with a child psychiatrist in Edmonton who she’d been told came to Fort McMurray, only to have her messages go unanswered. She found out later that the psychiatrist was no longer practicing.
By June, there was still no word on the referral the family had been waiting for since May, but things seemed to be improving for Morgan. “By this point, we weren’t leaving her alone at all, but then things started to get better,” Dunbar recalls. “She started painting again, she started coming out that anxiety and depression. We thought she was doing okay.” The Dunbars, who had considered homeschooling Morgan if the teenager didn’t improve, were relieved at the improvement, and thought the coming summer vacation would continue to help Morgan’s mood improve.
June 27 marked the first day of summer vacation. Dunbar spent the morning running errands with the girls. Between appointments, Dunbar took the girls to a local park, where the twins spent time with some friends from school. “There was nothing odd about that day, nothing off with [Morgan],” remembers Dunbar, who has spent the past seven months agonizing over the events of that day.
The family returned home to let the dog out. Morgan complained of feeling tired so Dunbar let her remain at home, while she and Bailey continued their errands. Morgan wasn’t alone – her older brother was upstairs sleeping and her aunts, uncles and cousins popped in and out regularly, so Dunbar knew that if Morgan needed something, she had family close by.
After stopping to pick up some guitar books for Morgan, the Dunbars headed home. On the way, Bailey suddenly felt ill.
“She turned chalk white and said, ‘Mom, I don’t feel right,’” Dunbar remembers. “She got very quiet. I still can’t explain it.”
When mother and daughter arrived home, Bailey headed straight downstairs to the basement bedroom she shared with her twin. Behind the locked door, music was playing loudly, and Bailey could hear the family dog inside the room, but her sister didn’t respond to her calls to open the door. She immediately sought out her parents for help.
When the Dunbars were finally able to get the door open, Morgan’s father was the first into the bedroom, followed by Bailey and then her mother. The family was devastated by what they found.
Alone in her bedroom with her dog, Morgan had finally reached a place where she could take the crippling depression and anxiety no more. The teenager had taken her own life.
The rest of the day is still a blur for Dunbar. “I don’t remember going to the hospital. I only vaguely remember a doctor telling me that she was gone. He said they’d worked on her for two hours,” Dunbar recalls.
In shock, grieving and only beginning to understand the terrible magnitude of their loss, the Dunbars returned home, grappling to understand how this could have happened to their beautiful, creative, sensitive daughter, a girl who loved to dance and who only ever wanted to help others in pain. How had it come to this?
“We took the summer to try and find a new normal,” Dunbar says, but it became obvious within days that life would never be the same for anyone in the family, least of all Bailey, who had lost her identical twin, her closest friend and the other half of herself.
The loss of Morgan has left its mark on everyone in the family, especially her mother. As Dunbar has struggled to find a way to deal with the terrible loss, she has found inspiration and solace through Morgan’s Mission Memorial Society, a society Dunbar started to honour her daughter’s life and educate the community about cyberbullying and children’s mental health.
“When it comes to cyberbullying, parents do not know what’s out there,” Dunbar says. “The internet and social media changes faster than we can educate ourselves and there are so many parents out there who don’t monitor their kids’ internet use. We give them cell phones, video games, computers, but unless you know what they’re doing [online], you have no idea what’s being sent to them or what they’re sending.”
Dunbar wants to help educate families about the dangers of cyberbullying and how to know when a child has become a victim of bullying, or is engaged in bullying themselves.
A secondary goal of Morgan’s Mission Memorial Society is to help raise awareness of the difficulty families encounter in getting help for mentally ill children. She hopes that no other family has to face the obstacles the Dunbars did in finding help for Morgan.
One of the biggest problems the Dunbars faced was negotiating the labrynth of mental health resources present in the community. Dunbar would like to see Fort McMurray adopt a similar model to Edmonton’s CASA, which provides a full range of mental health services for children and families at several locations in the city. Services provided by CASA include psychiatric assessment and treatment for children ages 0 through 18, day programs, parent education and supports and more. CASA provides a one-stop shop for mental health support for more than 3,600 children in central and northern Alberta every year, and Dunbar wants to see a similar centre built in Fort McMurray.
Dunbar says the mayor has agreed to meet with her and discuss how the region can better serve children’s mental health issues. Through Morgan’s Mission Memorial Society, Dunbar has raised funds for various anti-bullying education initiatives and programs across the province, including the Kids Help Phone, the organization Be The Game, and several others, and has partnered with Alberta Arbitration and Mediation on a pilot project to teach kids conflict resolution skills.
Bailey has also embarked on her own project, which works with pre-K, kindergarten and Grade 1 students to teach empathy skills and self-confidence building.
Dunbar says she’s found strength in the number of people who have been helped by Morgan’s story. “A lot of people relate to Morgan’s story,” Dunbar says, adding that she’s been contacted by a huge variety of people from grieving parents to children struggling with cyberbullying. The number of people reaching out has only strengthened Dunbar’s resolve to educate people about the effects of cyberbullying and the importance of mental health resources for children. “Any child lost to suicide because of the effects of bullying is a child lost, and it’s completely preventable,” she says. “This is about education, awareness and getting the resources where they need to be.”
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