Rising Numbers of Latina Teens Trying Suicide (2002)
Run Date: 08/27/02
A new study finds that
Hispanic girls, a group usually thought to be in a low-risk category for
suicide because of the strong family ties, are now increasingly likely
to attempt to take their own lives.
- DALLAS (WOMENSENEWS)--Two
years ago, licensed mental health counselor Norma Westurn put in a
full day of counseling clients at a clinic here and, instead of
closing shop and going home, routinely faced yet another full
client load. The only difference was the after-hours clients were
- "I was
overwhelmed" by so many Spanish-speaking clients, remembers
Brazilian-born Westurn, "because I was one of the few in the
clinic who could speak Spanish. I knew there was a need but I was
surprised there was such a great need."
- It was a void that
motivated Westurn to found a chain of mental health outlets called
Centro de Mi Salud (My Health Center). But it wasn't until Westurn
opened her doors for business that she realized there was a far
greater necessity for her services than even she imagined.
- Latina teens were
visiting her clinics in increasing numbers and the majority for
the same reason: They had attempted suicide.
- Suicide in the
teen population is not unknown. Popular data shows that suicide is
the third-leading cause of death of young people ages 15 to 24.
But attempted suicide among young Latinas was another story. The
very idea was considered by many to be an oxymoron; Latino
families are known for their close ties and cohesiveness, two
deterrents of teen suicide.
- But suicide
attempts by Latina teens are growing, a fact which is gaining
increased recognition by the medical community. According to a
July report published in the Journal of the American Medical
Association, Latina teen-agers are significantly more likely than
white or black adolescent girls to have attempted suicide.
- The finding is not
new; an earlier report published in 1999 by the National Coalition
of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations (which
officially changed its name to the National Alliance for Hispanic
Health in 2000) found that one out of every three Latina high
school students contemplates suicide. What is new is that while in
past years family members might be too ashamed to report their
daughter's attempted suicide, they now actively seek help for a
behavior they're at a loss to explain--as are the doctors treating
- Family and
Culture Are Major Factors
- "We don't
completely understand it," admitted Dr. Glenn Flores, author of
the report and associate professor of pediatric epidemiology and
health policy at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "But an
interesting piece we discovered in our research was that the more
Americanized or acculturated Latino kids become, the worse it is
for their health."
- It is an
observation shared by mental health experts across the country.
- Teen-agers have a
host of insecurities about appearance, academic success, peer
popularity, families and sex. To be a Latina teen-ager compounds
the already typical problems of adolescence and integrates a key
- Ordinarily, the
Latino culture places traditional expectations on their daughters.
When a Latino family immigrates to the United States, some
teen-agers find themselves in a push-and-pull match between the
culture they were born into and the new culture they want to
- "The adolescents
want to do things their way, socially and more independently,"
says Vida Yarn, a licensed professional counselor. "In the
Hispanic culture, the family is more interdependent and here the
kids don't want to be held so close to the family unit. They want
more social interaction with their new friends. The parents don't
understand this and then the adolescent gets depressed and acts
out suicidal gestures."
- In addition to
challenging the traditional expectations of the family, the Latina
teen-ager also has to serve as the bridge between her parents and
the new culture. The parents often depend on their child to act as
their translator for everyday transactions.
- The dependency,
according to mental health experts, shifts the family dynamics.
The child assumes the parent's role of communicating to society,
which in turn exerts adult pressures on her. The stress mounts
when the child starts worrying about the health of her parents,
who are the only sources of income for a family that may be
struggling to make ends meet.
- Hand in hand with
parental dependence is the added expectation from parents for
their child to do well, succeed and achieve in this new land of
- What the parents
don't count on is that their hijas (daughters) learn to take
advantage of those opportunities.
- "When the children
speak English and the parents don't, children will tend to
manipulate the parents," says Yarn. "They get away with a lot of
things that they wouldn't if they were in a community where
everybody spoke Spanish and the school communicated well with the
Unprepared for Spanish-Speaking Students Isolate Young Latinas
- Some mental-heath
experts say school systems could do more to lessen the numbers of
suicide attempts by Latina teen-agers.
- Dr. Ruth Zambrana,
co-author of the report and an adjunct professor of family
medicine in the school of medicine at the University of Maryland,
Baltimore, believes the school system is a demeaning experience
for most Latinos and low-income communities.
- "Research shows
that most teachers are not prepared to deal with culturally
different students," Zambrana says. "The school system doesn't
give Latinas the hope, information on options and the information
required" to succeed.
- These factors are
known to contribute to a poor self-image--a leading indicator of
the likelihood of contemplating suicide. However, though these
factors were known as suicide indicators, their effects on Latinas
were not, because Hispanics have often been omitted from academic
- The July report in
the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Latinos
are frequently not included in child-health research because
studies usually exclude all non-English speakers; study designers
often assume that a sample is nationally representative when only
white and black subjects are analyzed; and Latinos and additional
nonwhite research subjects are relegated to an "other" category.
- Health experts
believe that only when the medical community begins to recognize
the distinct needs and differences of the Latino population can a
more realistic and culturally appropriate approach to treatment
and intervention occur.
- An even better
approach, Zambrana suggests, is a "program where the girl is
provided not only mental health attention but, more important,
finding out what her dreams and hopes are and help her achieve
- Marisa Trevino
is a Rowlett, Texas-based freelance writer and public radio
commentator who writes regularly on Latina issues.
- For more
produced by the National Coalition of
Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations
"The State of Hispanic Girls":
Children: Urgent Priorities,
Unanswered Questions, and a Research Agenda":
- American Academy of Child and