Why are Latina teens at-risk for suicide attempts?

By Angélica Jiménez —

Little research on Latinas and teen suicide has been done with the exception of the groundbreaking work by Dr. Luis Zayas, professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine and author of “Understanding Latina Teen Suicide Attempts.”

Zayas interviewed Latina teens in New York City examining why teens had suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide. Like other experts, he focused on issues surrounding acculturation and internal family conflict. He noted that teens who fought with parents tend to have lower self-esteem and felt like they had insufficient mentoring.

“There is this gap where teens say, ‘I don’t really get good mentoring from my mom’ and felt their mothers weren’t emotionally attuned to them,” Zayas said.

Release from stress, revenge, control and self-punishment are all reasons why a teen may attempt suicide. Zayas worked with a Latina teen who was cutting herself and explored why this was happening.

“I worked with a 14-year-old girl who called the police on her father, who was brutalizing her mother, had a stash of drugs in the house and cache of weapons in the house,” Zayas explained. “And she felt guilty he was arrested.”

Intervention in early middle school years with girls and boys and their parents is important to the healing process, Zayas said. Parents need to know what their teen daughters are dealing with, especially immigrant parents who might have had a very different experience growing up, Zayas said.

“Immigrant parents can’t understand why their daughter is doing these things,” Zayas said. “They don’t understand the pressures she’s facing. [Family therapy] would help so they can get a better sense of each other.”

Latina teens are on a tightrope balancing their American and ethnic identities, which can be extremely challenging, said Dr. Nayeli Chavez.

“Adolescents are trying to find who they are in the world, who they are in this culture,” Chavez said. “There is confusion that parents may not necessarily understand teenagers, so they may feel really isolated and that they don’t belong on either side.”

When Latina teens embrace their American identity, there can be a backlash, said Chavez.

“Yet, in American culture they are also rejected, experience discrimination, rejection from peers; sometimes they are made fun of for their cultural values and their families,” Chavez said. “It can make teenagers very stressed and very confused about what their role is in society.”

Parents are often the ones who are blamed, but this might be too simplistic, Chavez said. This is especially true for Latina teens whose parents have emigrated from Latin America who had very different experiences growing up in their native country, she said.

“The literature tends to portray Latino parents as not caring, but they were not raised in this [U.S.] culture,” Chavez explained. “They have great difficulty understanding what their daughters are going through.”

Suicide attempts of teens might be more of a way of coping, explained Dr. Hector Torres, Director of the Center for Latino Mental Health, and it’s a complex issue because there are many factors.

“It starts from factors as simple as knowing that girls who develop earlier face higher problems from disruptive behavior and lower self-esteem,” Torres said. “They feel like they have to define themselves earlier than others which really increases risk for Latina youth.”

The term “fitting in” is so simplistic for such a complex situation, said Torres, and it is even more complicated for Latina teens, who might have drastically high expectations at home and at school with their friends.

“The feeling of isolation with Latinas might be true; there might not be anyone around them who feels the way they do,” Torres said.

Finding Solutions
There is hope and resources available to help struggling Latina teens, Torres said. Family therapy and culturally competent mental health services can have a huge impact on Latino families.

The Suicide Prevention, Education and Treatment Act became law in August 2004 to develop and implement a state suicide prevention plan and provide $250,000 to fund pilot programs.

“Part of the solution is to teach parents and adolescents and help them to develop communication skills necessary to be able to express what’s going on and negotiate solutions together,” Torres explained. “But it’s very important that the resources talk to them in their language and a way that is useful for them.”

The Signs
These are some of the signals showing that a teen may be thinking about taking his or her own life:
1. They stay away from friends and family.
2. They have difficulties concentrating or thinking clearly.
3. Changes in sleeping and eating habits (sleep or eat more or less than normal)
4. They show extreme changes in appearance (for example, they stop showering or wear only black)
5. They show feelings of guilt or hopelessness (they say things like “Why should I bother if all will go wrong for me?”)
6. They talk about suicide or death.
7. They talk about leaving.
8. They exhibit self-destructive behavior (drugs, alcohol, driving too fast)
9. They start to give away their prized possessions.
10. They have sudden changes of mood

If you or someone you know is currently in crisis, please contact the national crisis help line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Para obtener asistencia en español llame al 1-888-628-9454.

Some area resources include the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Midwest Chapter – Chicago (312) 890-AFSP (2377) and Mental Health America of Illinois at (312) 368-9070.

Other area resources that work with Latino population include:

Association House of Chicago, 1116 N. Kedzie, Chicago, IL 60651, (773) 772-8009
Contact: Wanda Figuero

Pilsen Wellness Center, 2319 S. Damen, Chicago, IL 60608, (773) 579-0832
Contact: Monica Masana

Family Services & MHC of Cicero, 5341 W. Cermak Rd., Cicero, IL 60804, (708) 656-6430 Contact: John Morgan

Mt. Sinai Medical Center, 2653 W. Ogden Ave., Chicago, IL 60608, (773) 257-5315
Contact: David Wilson

Proviso Family Services, 1820 S. 25th Avenue, Broadview, IL 60155, (708) 338-3806
Contact: Frank Perham

Community Counseling Centers of Chicago, 4740 N. Clark, Chicago, IL 60640, (773) 769-0205 Contact: Viviana Ploper

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.


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