Latina teenagers have nation's highest rate of suicide attempts
Isabel's grades were slipping. Her mother was in psychiatric care. Her brothers used drugs and were in and out of prison. She felt hopeless and said she no longer wanted to live.
Maria endured domestic violence as a child. Her father had a long history of substance abuse. She was so attached to her mother that she didn't want to leave the house. She was always sad and angry. One day, she sliced at her wrists.
Both of these 14-year-old Hispanic girls, whose names have been changed, were later counseled by Hilda Benitez, a licensed clinical social worker at Unitas Therapeutic Community, which provides mental health services to youth in New York City. "I don't think they really wanted to kill themselves," Benitez said. "They were just under a lot of stress."
Their drastic actions reflect a rising problem.
Latina teenagers in the United States are attempting suicide more than any other group. In 2005, 14.9 percent of Hispanic female youths attempted suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with 9.8 percent of black female youths and 9.3 percent of white female youths.
But many of these teens, both immigrant and American-born, do not want to die. They actually succeed at committing suicide the least of any group.
"This is how they cope with their feelings," said Luis Zayas, a cultural psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who is in New York to study the phenomenon.
The Bronx is home to more than 55,000 Latinas between the ages of 10 and 19, the most of any borough, according to the 2000 Census. In December, New York State Assemblyman Peter M. Rivera, chairman of a standing committee on mental health, led a hearing on suicide attempts by young Hispanic women. "It's a national problem," he said in an interview.
Last month, Rivera met with Hispanic health professionals and decided to begin an outreach effort that would include posters and public service announcements to help identify people who suffer from depression. "The next step is to incorporate it into the budget," he said.
There are many possible causes for this growing pattern of suicide attempts, Zayas said, including cultural conflicts between immigrant parents and American-born daughters. In those cases, "Mainstream culture is saying, 'Be your own woman, dress the way you want and go on dates,'" he said. "That clashes when you have more traditional parents, especially immigrant parents."
Respect for parents is paramount in the Latino household, Zayas said, and a girl's independence, especially when it comes to boys, is secondary. Some Hispanic girls are raised to be passive and stay primarily in the home. While sex and pregnancy, drug use and gangs are some of the big issues that lead to rifts between parents and children, there are many less explosive concerns that create problems, as well, experts say, like skipping school or dating at an early age.
The suicide attempt itself is usually an impulsive act that takes place in the girl's home when someone else is there or will be home soon, Zayas said. The girls usually ingest pills, make superficial cuts or threaten to jump from windows. While Zayas stopped short of characterizing the suicide attempts as cries for help, he did call them a form of expression for the girls. "It's more of a communication about the stress," he said.
Tatrocinia Ibanez-Murillo, an affirmative action administrator for the Bronx Psychiatric Center, said she experienced the stress of living with a strict Hispanic mother. "To wear lipstick," she said, "was a nightmare."
Ibanez-Murillo added that Latino parents often expect their children to adhere to old traditions. The conflict comes when the children's peers are doing something different. "I think when kids are feeling that kind of conflict and desperation," she said, "the next step is suicide."