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Facing Crisis: Suicide Among Latina Adolescents

By Ada Mariela Ortega

sadness-3As Latinas become better recognized for their achievements and presence in the United States, the number of Latina adolescents considering suicide is still at a record high.

The latest report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention revealed that 26 percent of Hispanic teenage girls contemplated suicide in 2013, compared to 21 percent in 2011.

So what exactly is triggering these young women to make such tragic decisions?

Dr. Rosa Gil, founder of La Vida Es Preciosa.

Dr. Rosa Gil, founder of La Vida Es Preciosa.

Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano (C-32).

Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano (C-32).

Contributive Factors

Dr. Rosa Gil is the founder of La Vida Es Preciosa (Life is Precious), a program helping young Latinas in the New York City area overcome their suicidal tendencies and helping their parent’s identify suicidal behaviors. According to a 2014 CDC Youth Risk Surveillance System survey, close to 25 percent of Latina adolescents contemplated suicide in Brooklyn and Staten Island. “There are several contributive factors that lead to a young girl committing suicide, however in order to know what is wrong with someone, you literally have to ask them. That is why our program focuses on the communication between the mother and daughter,” says Dr. Gil. “It is key to preventing these young girls from taking their lives.”

Other contributing factors Dr. Gil emphasizes on include coping with stress and anxiety as well as coping with acculturation. “When these girls realize they come from a different country, they tend to feel isolated in the adaptation process,” says Dr. Gil. “The language barrier, getting acquainted with a new scenario in school, as well as living up to the expectations of their parents and that of the American society can be extremely stressful experiences for them.”

Poverty is another common issue that arises when studying teen Latina suicide statistics. Dr. Gil points out that many teenage girls live in poverty and have limited access to mental health treatment. “Many of the girls we have worked with have mothers who have to work two jobs because of their financial situation. This leaves the girls feeling isolated and abandoned. Not to mention, many times, they have to take over their mother’s role and raise their brothers and sisters; something that can be very stressful,” says Dr. Gil.

Early Identification and Intervention

Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano, who represents California’s 32nd congressional district representative, is a champion of mental health awareness and for years has pushed legislation that focuses on early identification of mental illnesses and knowing the benefits of early intervention in a school-based setting. “We can prevent our young girls from making lethal decisions by first educating them,” says Congresswoman Napolitano. “The younger we get them to talk about mental health, the more prevention we can have.”

In 2001, after learning that one in three Latina teens had contemplated suicide, Congresswoman Napolitano secured federal funds for Pacific Clinics’ Youth Suicide Prevention Programs. Currently four local schools in California have partnered with health care provider Pacific Clinics to offer on-site, culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health services for students.

“I met a young Latina once who was a straight-A student in elementary school. However, once she got to middle school her grades started suffering and she couldn’t help but feel depressed and unhappy for the shame she would bring to her family. The girl contemplated suicide but was able to overcome it when she freely talked to her parents about it, something she built up the courage to do after participating in our program,” shares Congresswoman Napolitano. With Los Angeles County assistance, the program has since expanded to 26 local elementary, middle and high schools and currently has a waiting list.

Breaking the Stigma

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Hispanic culture tends to not characterize mental health as a problem or an illness. “Many times, Latina girls are so afraid to speak about their mental health issues to their parents because they’re simply afraid they’re going to get the typical “no seas chiflada” [don’t be spoiled] response which completely stigmatizes mental health,” says Congresswoman Napolitano.

A recent study titled Community-Defined Solutions For Latino Mental Health Care Disparities by UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities reported that many Latinos tend to stay away from getting real help simply because of language barriers and the stigma behind mental health. “In the Latino community, mental health illnesses are associated with shame and humiliation, and this may also prevent girls from seeking professional help,” says Dr. Gil.

Both Dr. Gil and Congresswoman Napolitano agree that communication between a girl and her parent[s] is important to preventing suicide. La Vide Es Preciosa and Pacific Clinics’ Youth Suicide Prevention programs focus on bringing the mother and daughter together to form a lasting bond through various types of art exercises. “In a way, our program is a license for creative art therapy for the girls.” says Dr. Gil. “The girls, and sometimes the mothers, are able to express their feelings and frustrations through poetry, writing and music. In the end, it serves as a great intervention for the girls.”

Comunilife’s unique Life is Precious program prevents suicide in young Latinas – the teen population with the highest rate of suicide attempt in the country. Life is Precious combines individual and group counseling, arts therapy, academic support, and nutritional and fitness activities. Psychiatric services are provided by partnering clinics. To date, more than 150 girls have gone through the program.

The Future of Mental Health Among Latina Adolescents

“We must promote mental health awareness at the county, local, state and national level,” states Congresswoman Napolitano. “The time is now to start a national conversation about mental health amongst Latinos and to de-stigmatize it once and for all.” Congresswoman Napolitano’s youth suicide prevention program serves as a model for H.R. 1211, the Mental Health in Schools Act, a bipartisan legislation which would create a total of $200 million in grant funding for 200 schools across the country to partner with local nonprofits to provide early intervention and preventive services for young people with mental health issues.
“We keep seeing these record numbers and I can’t help to think that the problem just doesn’t seem to be going away,” reiterates Dr. Gil. “We need to have our national media all over these alarming statistics. By uncovering the number of tragedies among Latina adolescents, they can serve a larger purpose in becoming key players on prevention.”

Suicide Prevention Awareness

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The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 1 million people die each year from suicide. There are signs that may suggest someone is at risk for suicide. Risk is greater if a behavior is new or has increased and if it seems related to a painful event, loss, or change. Seek help as soon as possible by contacting a mental health professional or by calling the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you or someone you know exhibits any of the following signs:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves.

  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun.

  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.

  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.

  • Talking about being a burden to others.

  • Increasing their use of alcohol or drugs.

  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.

  • Sleeping too little or too much.

  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves.

  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.

  • Displaying extreme mood swings.

Suicide hotlines and crisis support

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Suicide prevention telephone hotline funded by the U.S. government. Provides free, 24-hour assistance. 1-800-273-TALK FREE (8255). http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

AFSP is a multifaceted organization made up of esteemed scientists, dedicated survivors of suicide loss, people with mental disorders and their families, and an expansive network of business and community leaders. https://www.afsp.org/

La Vida Es Preciosa (Life is Precious)

LIP currently has two centers – one in the South Bronx and one in Bushwick, Brooklyn – which are warm and comfortable spaces, staffed by empathetic, strong women with a deep understanding for Latina culture, language, and challenges. LIP reaches young women at the highest risk for self-harm. http://comunilife.org/

National Hopeline Network

Toll-free telephone number offering 24-hour suicide crisis. http://www.hopeline.com/

State Prevention Programs

Browse through a database of suicide prevention programs, organized by state. (National Strategy for Suicide Prevention) http://www.samhsa.gov/prevention/suicide.aspx

IASP

Find crisis centers and helplines around the world. (International Association for Suicide Prevention). http://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres

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