In the first part of this two-part piece, I discussed the media portrayal–both as a broader cultural phenomenon and in terms of those attempting suicide–of the elevated suicide attempt rate among young Latinas. In looking at this issue, it can be argued that there are, indeed, legitimate concerns with what we see portrayed in the media. Is Latino familism inherently more oppressive than that which exists in other cultures? How so? Are young Latinas at a particular disadvantage when trying to assimilate into mainstream American culture? If so, why? These are questions I believe call for further debate.
But, while there is a growing body of research out there on suicide and mental illness that is open to interpretation, there is also that which we know to be true simply by looking at what is around us–in our neighborhoods, families, homes, and our own heads even. Setting aside discussions regarding research designs, conflicting statistics and related methodological issues, the fact remains that suicide and mental illness, in general, is a serious concern in the Latino community–for men and women, young and old. It’s also a fact that’s not so easy to talk about.
What exactly does the data tell us?
Broadly speaking, a lot of the research that has been floating around the Internet and in popular media outlets points to the fact that young Latinas have an elevated rate of self-reported attempted suicide. Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control support this. However, based on data from the American Association of Suicidology, overall, the actual completed suicide rate among Latinos is lower than those of all other non-Latinos within all age groups. One thing we should keep in mind is that women and young girls may be more likely to report suicide attempts. In general, research has shown that women tend to internalize distress and men tend to externalize distress. So, while women may be attempting suicide more and talking about it more, men are more likely to turn to substance abuse or physical acts of aggression when confronted with mental distress. There is a great deal of research that also suggests minority status can influence substance abuse–with Latinos born in the US having higher rates of substance abuse than their non-Latino counterparts. So, there are a lot of serious mental health issues that need to be addressed in the community, of which, suicide is definitely a part.
Why isn’t it easy to talk about mental health issues, and why don’t people get help?
There are a number of reasons why mental illness–depression in particular–and suicide are hard to talk about. Here are some of the more common ones:
Feelings of inadequacy or weakness. Many people think that being sad or feeling helpless are just things that happen to people. They think they can push through them. To an extent, this is correct. While occasional feelings of sadness or helplessness are normal and can pass, sometimes they don’t. In those cases, it’s best to get help. It doesn’t mean one is weak or abnormal. Reaching out for help can be especially difficult for men who are socialized to “be strong” above all else.
Distrust of mental health professionals. Unfortunately, for many in our community, initial contact with mental health professionals comes about in a forced way within institutions–schools, hospitals and courts. This type of environment may not be the ideal place for one to appreciate the positive role a good therapist or counselor can play in one’s life and, from this environment, some people may conclude that therapy or counseling is of little value. Furthermore, there may be language barriers. Of those mental health practitioners who do speak Spanish, not all are Latino, and that can lead some people into feeling as if the practitioner cannot truly identify with them or their experiences. For undocumented individuals, this distrust can be compounded by citizenship status-related fears.
Lack of resources. The reality is that therapy is somewhat of a luxury. Being able to sit around and talk to an objective professional takes money and time–money and time that many people do not have. Even with health insurance, it can be costly. For those who may be deterred by this, though, it is important to note that many therapists or counselors do have sliding scales. For younger people, a good place to start might be your high school or university. Many schools have resources for students. Being proactive is always better than ignoring the problem.
Good old-fashioned fatalism. Some people believe that there is nothing they can do about their lot in life. They believe that everything happens for a reason and those reasons may remain hidden from them forever. Religious proscription against suicide can keep people from seeking help for their thoughts about committing suicide. Religion is often our first teacher about what it means to control your own destiny. Suffering can be construed as being Christ-like. In an ideal world, religious teachings designed to help us love one another would not become twisted in such a way as to cause people to ignore their own problems. We do not live in an ideal world, though. We live in the real world. While we are here, it would be nice if we could have a little inner peace.
What you can do about it.
Know the signs. Being self-aware takes practice and patience. Being aware of loved ones’ internal mental states can be even more difficult. But, in general, any of the following should cause concern: binge drinking or substance abuse, sleep disturbances (too much or too little), rapid weight gain or loss, marked mood swings or irritability, loss of interest in activities once liked, social withdrawal, difficulty in dealing with a major life event or stressor. These are challenges that many people face and are by no means insurmountable, but they must not be ignored. Extreme anxiety, improper hygiene, delusions and hallucinations, paranoia or a sense of being watched or controlled by others are additional symptoms associated with schizophrenia and should be taken seriously.
Get help. The most important thing to remember is that no one is alone. Mental illness isn’t something that will just go away on its own. We owe it to ourselves to lead the best possible lives. It is an unfortunate truth that all too often mental health is overlooked as a central component to overall good health. The reality is that we cannot always power through feelings of helplessness, vulnerability or sadness. And no one should have to. If you notice drastic changes in the behavior patterns of your loved ones, suggest they talk to someone and offer to be there for them in whatever capacity you can. If you notice changes in your own behaviors or moods, talk to someone. Help is out there for those who seek it.