First of a three-part series. Read Part 2 and Part 3
Emma Pangelinan’s room embodies everything that is pure and good about teenagers, yet the quiet in the air is so heavy it nearly brings you to your knees.
Two rows of hard-earned gleaming softball and soccer trophies testify to the past. A blue-and-gold UCLA pennant on the wall promises a wonderful future.
But the athletic, bright, always-helpful 13-year-old who slept in this room, who grew up in this home of faith and family, is gone forever.
After a perfect day on a perfect Sunday blasting softballs, sharing jokes with the girls on her travel team and window shopping with Dad, Emma disappeared on the evening of Jan. 21 and killed herself.
No note, no warning, no “13 Reasons Why” voice tape as portrayed on the recent Netflix suicide series.
Just the stop of a beating heart.
In the following three weeks in Orange County, at least three more teenagers who appeared to excel ended their lives.
How many other teens have taken or tried to take their lives in Southern California in the past few months is unknown. But what is known is that smart, successful, gifted teens are committing suicide in increasing numbers, and if certain things don’t change – and change quickly – many more young lives will be snuffed out.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in self-harm,” reports Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadzki, executive medical director of the Neurosciences Institute at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. “Negative behaviors have steadily started to increase.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports suicide has become the third-leading cause of death for teens and that more than 4,600 young people – ages 10 to 24 – are lost each year.
Additionally, 157,000 youths between the ages of 10 and 24 are treated at emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.
For many teens, suicide is no longer only about parents screaming at kids, drug addiction or bullying.
The factors causing some of these suicides as well as thousands of attempts are new, murky and very much 21st century.
They include lives lived in a digital world in which kids are measured by Instagram and Snapchat “likes,” a sense of overwhelming pressure coupled with fear of failure, and the belief that practice – and enough Internet research – can make you perfect.
But, of course, perfection is unattainable and failure is guaranteed.
“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” writes Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of “Generation Me.”
“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” Twenge concludes. “These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household.”
Technology’s seismic shift
A hand-carved cross about 18 inches tall hangs above the mantle in Liza and Louie Pangelinan’s home in Mission Viejo. Below, two votive candles flicker. A rosary is draped over a small statue of Jesus Christ, hands low and open. In the center, there is a photo of Emma. She is smiling and appears to lean forward, eager for her next adventure.
The candles and the photo are new. The hanging cross is not. The rosary is the same rosary that parents and extended relatives from Corona held the night that Emma’s body was discovered.
But the seventh grader’s essence is best captured in a photo that is nearly hidden. It shows Emma from the back when she was just 8 years old. Already a budding athlete, her batting helmet is cocked just so and she grasps the meat of the bat with one hand, barrel up and behind her.
Her stride exudes confidence, strength and grace – the very same characteristics Emma exuded the day she killed herself.
Emma’s father, Louie Pangelinan, played high school football in Corona, was a volunteer coach and allows that his daughter “made plays you don’t see at the high school level, and she made them look easy.”
It’s a statement not of pride but of fact, and is difficult for Pangelinan to volunteer. Exceptionally quiet and humble by nature, the longshoreman paraphrases football great Walter Payton, “When you’re good at something, you tell everyone. When you’re great at something, they tell you.”
Kids, coaches, even parents told Emma she was great – because, well, she was.
At just about everything.
Emma earned straight As, excelled at art, whisked from kid softball to club teams and then to travel teams. She played the tough job of catcher; heck, she played any position needed.
But 2016 was a very tough year. One of the girls in the league was responsible for her own death.
The coaches, however, understood the trauma and called in Casey Cooper, sports psychologist. Cooper addressed the team as a whole and also took on individuals. Emma was one.
Exceptionally shy, Emma came out of her shell under Cooper. Soon, she made friends more easily.
After a series of sessions, the therapy ended. There was no indication of depression. Just the opposite.
Recalling the day she got a text stating Emma had disappeared, the therapist echoes Emma’s parents, “There were no red flags.”
Still, like other experts on teenage turmoil, Cooper sees red flags across the nation.
The speed of technology, they agree, is moving faster than the ability of young people to process the effects.
Consider that smartphones arrived in 2007. Instagram came online in October 2010, Snapchat a year later.
San Diego State’s Twenge dates the impact: “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011.”
Millennials grew up with PCs, moved on to laptops, gravitated to tablets and came of age when smartphones hit the market. But their little brothers and sisters practically grew up with smartphones.
The gap between millennials and their iGen siblings may be as little as five years, yet it is as wide as the gap between the World War II generation and baby boomers.
Few will admit it – many don’t even know it – but parents might as well be on Mars when it comes to understanding the new world of their teens.
“These kids are always on display,” Cooper points out. “You’re always being evaluated based on the number of likes and comments.”
Reaching for perfection
In their living room, the Pangelinans offer a gracious platter of chips and fresh-cut veggies. But during a discussion that lasts until sunset, no one touches food.
When your youngest child dies by their own hand, eating is nearly impossible. Living is hard enough.
Liza confesses she loves candy. Yet gift baskets of candy from friends stack up on the dining table untouched. She confesses, “I can’t taste them.”
Mom shakes her head at the memory of hiking with Emma a week before her little girl’s death. Liza was shocked and frightened by the carcass of a decaying deer and Emma, 5-foot-4 and strong, comforted her mother.
How could such a girl take her own life a week later?
Emma not only left her parents in mourning, she left behind an older brother and sister who thought – no, knew – their little sister “was the coolest.”
Still, Cooper and Emma’s parents allow the seventh grader was a perfectionist who could be tough on herself.
“She would talk about an error and we would say, ‘But you made 10 great plays,’” Liza says. “Emma internalized a lot of stuff.”
Emma wasn’t big on social media, Liza says. She adds, however, many teens stage elaborate photos as if to prove they are having fun and post them online in a race for digital popularity. When it’s deemed there’s an insufficient number of “likes,” they take down the photo.
“These kids have a lot more pressure than we ever did growing up,” Liza says. “There’s a lot we can’t relate to.”
After a long moment of silence, Liza allows, “Obviously there was some level of depression. Emma conquered everything except her emotions.
“They were just too overwhelming.”
Dad reflects on all the long car rides he had with his youngest daughter. Driving is difficult, he admits. It won’t be any easier come summer.
In July, Dad and Emma were going to drive to Colorado for a series of softball games. Emma even made a playlist for the trip.
It’s still in her bedroom.
Next: Teen’s suicide note details today’s pressures