By Angélica Jiménez —
Christmas Eve morning 2009, Giovanna Mendez received the phone call no parent should ever receive. Repeated unanswered calls made from her daughter Tatiana’s cell phone and one missed call from the police department caused Giovanna to panic. When the police arrived to Giovanna’s home, she learned her only daughter hanged herself in the middle of the night.
“You would never know she had depression. She’d keep things to herself,” Giovanna explained. “She had a lot of dreams; she was a good daughter.”
Tatiana, 20, was smart, determined and focused. She was in a romantic relationship her parents found troubling. After moving out with her boyfriend, she moved home for a time but then went back to him.
Tatiana left a suicide note apologizing to her family and asking that they take care of her niece, whom she adored.
Tatiana’s death is only part of a growing national crisis: 11 percent of young Latinas ages 13-21 across nationwide admitted a suicide attempt according to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disparities between Latina teens attempting suicide and their peers is startling: the CDC reported in 2009 that nearly 15 percent of Latina teens surveyed had attempted suicide the year before compared to 10 percent of all high school girls.
The idea of Latina teen suicide is perplexing to many because Latino families are known for their close ties and cohesiveness, two known deterrents of teen suicide. But suicide attempts by Latina teens are increasing.
However, the number of Latinas who die by suicide is very small said Samantha Gray, epidemiologist with Cook County Department of Public Health. Gray notes there were fewer than five suicides among Latinas aged 13 to 19 since 2000 in suburban Cook County. But one in six Latina teens have considered attempting suicide, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey for Suburban Cook County in 2010. The survey was completed by 1,718 students in 20 public high schools during the fall of 2010.
What is happening to these young women? Some experts point to the culture shock experienced from immigrant Latina teens trying to fit in. There is a disconnect between some immigrant mothers and their U.S. born daughters on how to adapt to American culture while still retaining root cultural values, experts said.
While it is often not just a singular issue that may be troubling teens, the struggle over ethnic identity can be particularly challenging for Latina teens, said Dr. Virginia Quiñonez, faculty chair of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
“There’s a conflict between ‘I want to be independent and I want to be interdependent; I want to feel comfortable in the safety by my family,’” Quiñonez said. “And that is not supported in their peer groups.”
Latinas face the pull to be close to family and strike out on their own, Quiñonez said.
“What it means to be a woman in this country may be different than what they bring as Latinas,” Quiñonez said. “If one parent or both are not available, it makes it that much more of a critical issue.”
Other experts cite a taboo against counseling in immigrant Latino communities is preventing many troubled teens and stressed parents from getting the help they need.
For many teens, it is comfortable to talk about mental health issues but not with their parents, said Mayra Chacon, coordinator of Latino Mental Health Providers Network, which offers support to area mental health providers.
Chacon ran focus groups with teenagers and young adults 14-21 to discuss their thoughts about the mental health system.
“A girl who recently attempted suicide said, ‘Even when I was in the bed and the hospital and I was trying to explain to my mom and dad why, they would not listen,’ ” Chacon said.
The stigma in Latino culture against therapy runs deeps, Chacon said.
“[Teens have] heard it at home from their family, ‘You’re going to a counselor? Estás loco.’ Kids born and raised here in Chicago, but what they heard from their parents impacted them,” Chacon said.
Surviving a Suicide
There is no simple explanation for why her daughter committed suicide.
“They look like they don’t have problems at all,” Giovanna said wiping her tears. “It’s hard to see those signs especially when that person is smiling and not complaining.”
Giovanna’s faith in God has carried her through such a devastating loss.
“I gave myself to God. I was going to church every single day,” Giovanna said tearfully.
Giovanna also started attending support groups for survivors of suicide.
“It’s what keeps me strong; I have met beautiful, wonderful people who have given so much support,” Giovanna said. “But I’ve met a lot of women who don’t want to go through that [counseling]. They don’t go on with their lives.”
Photos of Tatiana, a beautiful young woman with long, brown hair and constant smile, are scattered all over their living room.
“I know that through talking [about her], I feel closer to her,” Giovanna said solemnly. “I just pray every day for her. I light a candle for her every day.”
This story was reported by Latina-Voices.com in partnership with Mujeres Latinas en Accion mujereslatinasenaccion.org. They received a Local Reporting Award from Community News Matters, a program of The Chicago Community Trust. This article also was published at Extra bilingual newspaper.