An alarmingly high number of Latina teens are attempting suicide and the number continues to increase. Latina teens report some of the highest rates of depression, attributed to their family relationships, lifestyle expectations and bi-cultural differences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every seven Latina teens attempts suicide.
In the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey conducted by the CDC, 32.6 percent of Latino teens experienced feelings of depression for two or more weeks, 14.3 percent made a plan of how they would attempt suicide within the last 12 months and 10.2 percent attempted suicide one or more times within the past 12 months.
Dr. Luis Zayas, Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, has researched and studied Latina suicide to discover the root of the problem within Latina teens and their family relationships for over 30 years. Beginning his career as a social worker in the late 1970s in New York City, Zayas noticed the alarming presence of Latina teens in emergency rooms and mental health clinics as a result of a suicide attempt.
“People had different ideas of what the high rate of suicide attempts were due to, but had no understanding of the numbers,” he said. “Through the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey in 1991, we discovered that Latinas across the country were attempting suicide at higher rates than any other group, and not just in New York.”
In 2005, Zayas was funded by the National Institutes of Health to get to the bottom of the issue: why some Latinas attempt suicide and others don’t.
“We found out some obvious things,” he said. “The girls typically were less familistic and more socialized than their parents, they were more depressed, had lower self esteem and poor coping skills. Most of these girls were U.S. born of immigrant parents.”
Zayas described the disconnected relationships between mothers and daughters as a large contributing factor of Latina teen suicide. Instead of coping with stress with proactive activities and hobbies or diving into studies, the girls would get involved in wishful thinking, he said.
“Our girls never talk about social rejection but about family crises, tensions, and dysfunctions that seemed to be the triggers for a suicide attempt,” he said. “For attempters, many reasons were issues regarding dating, not completing household chores, problems that a sibling was favored, or simply that parents did not understand.”
When mothers and daughters were interviewed about their relationships, the study concluded that Latina teens who attempted suicide reported that they were not close with their mothers. The mothers of the Latina attempters reported that they were close with their daughters (and even their “best friends”). In relation to Latina non-attempters, the mothers and daughters had similar levels of understanding in their relationship.
“Their level of understanding of one another was different,” Zayas said of the Latina attempters and their mothers. “There is a lot of work that can be done in family therapy and the daughter-parent interaction. Raising levels of communication is key,” he said.
“Members of the family need to tell their stories and listen with the intent of understanding and not become defensive.”
When a teen is contemplating suicide or feels at risk, suicide prevention hotlines and lifelines provide support and immediate help from a trained counselor 24 hours a day. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is currently on track to receive over 800,000 calls this year, according to spokesman Jeremy Willinger.
“The Lifeline is inordinately beneficial to the Hispanic community as we have trained crisis counselors who are able to understand cultural factors, and communicate with callers in the language they are most comfortable,” he said.
“This provides a better comprehension of the specific issues facing each caller and allows us to reference the most effective programs and resources.”
Various organizations are raising awareness and implementing programs to prevent Latina suicide. In New York, Comunilife, a community-based health and housing support provider, began the program Life is Precious in 2008.
Life is Precious provides culturally specific emotional support, wellness activities and creative art therapy for Latina teens age 12 to 17 who have attempted suicide and their families. Programs include "Tertulias for Moms" and "Dominos for Dads" to create a healthy family relationship and solve the disconnectivity issues between their daughters.
With continued support and outreach, Latina suicide can be prevented. For help within a time of crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-888-237-TALK (8255).