Grief-stricken friends, relatives and teachers mourned and lamented the death of 16-year-old Ophylia Mona Lisa Afuhaamango Mataele on Friday, March 3, at a tearful standing-room-only memorial service at Menlo-Atherton High School.
Ophylia, an 11th-grader at M-A, hanged herself from the back yard eaves of a house in the 1300 block of Almanor Avenue in Menlo Park on Tuesday, Feb 27, while attending a party, said Robert Foucault, the San Mateo County Coroner. A suicide note was found, Mr. Foucault said.
Suicidal thoughts are not uncommon among teens, said Liz Schoeben, director of M-A's Adolescent Counseling Services, a nonprofit group based in Palo Alto that offers free psychotherapy at M-A. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens, after accidental death and drug and alcohol abuse, she said.
Ophylia's death stunned the Tongan community and people of Polynesian ancestry throughout East Palo Alto and nearby sections of Menlo Park, said family spokesman Steve Teu. "She fooled me because of her smile," he said. "No one expected this, especially from her. She was very popular. But, as we all know now, she was alone in the crowd."
Black-clad student mourners packed the J Building on the M-A campus, and some came to the microphone and spoke.
Amid tears, Mele Teu recalled her need for comfort upon learning of her mother's diagnosis of breast cancer, and the silence from friends and relatives except Ophylia. "You need someone to be there for you, and who was there for me? Mona Lisa," Mele said, using her friend's middle name.
Guitarist DeBraun Thomas played a soulful tune he said he composed for his friend.
She was a force at M-A, playing a vibrant game of soccer and as a mover and shaker in the school's Polynesian Club. Her efforts raised participation among students and parents. "She was the person who challenged us as Polynesians to come out to M-A to support their Polynesian Club," said Sela Teu, Mr. Teu's wife.
Mr. Teu said Ophylia, who took advanced-standing and advanced-placement classes, had had good grades until recently. "In the end, I was not aware of her grades falling," he said. "She had such a big heart and smile, every time it would sidetrack me. She'd smile and you would think, 'She's OK.' She was very strong."
M-A offers help
Ophylia's smile may have fooled even a professional. "We're not predictors of human behavior," said Ms. Schoeben of the school's counseling service.
A diagnosis of clinical depression is a red flag and can be helpful, she said, but "that still doesn't mean they're going to do it (and) a kid can commit suicide with no red flags."
About one in every eight adolescents experience clinical depression, she said, referring to statistics from an October 2002 story in Newsweek magazine.
Ms. Schoeben said the M-A community -- both students and teachers -- alerts her to troubled students, some of whom reveal their anxieties in text messages or assigned essays.
Are teens more vulnerable? They have fewer coping skills, she said. As an adult, "I have learned that I can do other things besides take my own life (but) they're young."
When a student catches their attention, counseling staff at M-A get right to the point, asking students questions designed to gauge how far along the path toward suicide they are.
Ms. Schoeben said she calls the ambulance about three times a school year. These students are hospitalized -- maybe for an hour, or a week or two weeks -- and evaluated by a psychiatrist.
Being hauled off in an ambulance has a message: "I can't trust your judgment right now because you're sad. When you start to feel better, you can make your own decisions again."
The Adolescent Counseling Service is putting together a letter for parents in the wake of Ophylia's death.
INFORMATION: For more information -- for both teens and parents -- go to http://www.acs-teens.org or call the Palo Alto office at 424-0852. To reach Ms. Schoeben, call 322-5311, ext. 5186.
To create a discussion topic in Town Square, click here: http://www.almanacnews.com/square/index.php?i=9