El Blog

Too Young to Die

Feature photo by Peter Ward

A recent July post at Guanabee.com features an interview with Luis H. Zayas, Ph.D., a psychologist and leading researcher on Latino families and adolescent Latina suicide rates, in particular. Some of the earliest research he was exposed to while working on his doctorate in the 1980s was undertaken in the early 1960s and focused specifically on suicidal behavior among Puerto Rican women in the Bronx. That research reported that these young women had inordinately high suicide rates compared to other populations. But studies empirically examining this phenomenon on a broader level remained virtually non-existent for decades. Smaller studies did seem to corroborate the notion that adolescent Latinas did, indeed, have elevated suicide attempt rates–and this was observed to be the case among many adolescent Latinas regardless of nationality of origin, not just Puerto Ricans in the Bronx. Since the 1980s, Zayas has been working to answer the question of why adolescent Latinas have a higher suicide attempt rate. And his research has received some considerable national attention in various media outlets from television to magazines and, of course, the blogosphere.

By some accounts, like those referenced in a 2008 Washington Post article titled “Crying Out For Help,” the rate of suicide attempts among young Latinas is as high as 1 in 5. Other estimates place the figure closer to 1 in 6. According to reports from the CDC, rates of suicide attempts among young Latinas are double those of black and white adolescent girls whose rates are closer to the 8%-10% range. It was the convergence of results from large scale studies on adolescent behavior, like those undertaken by the CDC, and results from research undertaken by Zayas and his colleagues on intracultural factors affecting suicide rates that served to prompt much interest in this topic over the past few years in media outlets like The Washington Post and CNN. Nothing makes for good news like tragedy. Young women killing themselves before they have reached full adulthood. Daughters of immigrants coming to America for the dream and instead finding death by their own hand. Oh, the humanity!

The overarching theme in these articles–written for John Q. Public–is that many young Latinas are hopelessly caught between two cultures. Unable to deal with the conflicting demands of their families and their own desires at autonomy and acculturation into American society, they are more susceptible to attempting suicide. Their fathers are absent or controlling. Their mothers are incapable of understanding them. The modern American world is something they want to be a part of but their families hold them down. These young Latinas are confused, without resources, unable to cope and are looking to end it all. The popular articles on Latina suicide rates point to “unique” cultural factors like parents who wish their daughters to do more housework, tend to younger siblings and not date until a certain age as points of contention between Latina daughters and their families.

By only selectively reporting findings, popular articles on Latina suicide rates would also have you believe this theme is borne directly from research like that of Zayas and his collegues. However, a more careful perusal of the literature (for example, the work of Zayas himself) suggests that existing data and collection methods may not be enough to warrant what I call the alarmist attention-grabbing attempts made by mainstream journalists on the topic of Latina suicide rates. In the abovementioned work, while Zayas and colleagues meticulously lay out a solid model for understanding intracultural factors thought to be involved in adolescent Latina suicide attempts, he also notes we should be cautious about what constitutes a suicide attempt and the limitations of existing research in the area. How do we define a suicide attempt? How do researchers measure it? He also discusses a phenomenon known as “ataque de nervios” which is something akin to a panic attack. It is sometimes possible that bouts of impulsivity during these ataques, or actions committed by patients trying to lessen their anxiety, can be construed as suicide attempts by a clinician. But is the woman who is experiencing an ataque trying to end her life? The answer is, we do not know. More research is needed into the subjective experiences of those that are and those that are considered suicide attempters. Another example underscoring this definition problem comes from the 2008 Washington Post article mentioned earlier. A supposed suicidal teenage Latina was featured. Her attempt: taking extra-strength Motrin.

“Paula knew no English as she started high school. At home, she was expected to keep her aunt’s house clean, wash the dishes and do the laundry. Overwhelmed early one evening that first year, she sought out a bottle of high-dose Motrin, a painkiller, and took one pill. This past September, it was two pills. She was looking at the bottle, wondering whether to take more, when a good friend called and she told him what she was doing. The friend came over, took her to the emergency room and stayed with her until her mom arrived.”

If taking two Motrin and thinking about taking more constitutes a suicide attempt, I execute a suicide attempt once every 28 days.

All jokes aside, a great number of real obstacles do exist for young Latinas in America and they can weigh negatively on one’s psychosocial functioning. But they may not necessarily be indicative of an inherent suicidal psychopathology and oppressive familial influence within the Latino community–which I am afraid is the conclusion John Q. Public is making. If parents are absent from homes–say perhaps to work multiple jobs to make ends meet–and this results in parents that are not able to detect or respond to changes in their children’s behavior, can we say this issue is “cultural”? If students who drop out of high-school are more likely to engage in risky behavior (like substance abuse) and these risky behaviors are also positively correlated with suicide attempts, and Latinos have high rates of dropping out and substance abusing, can we call this “cultural”? How do we determine problems that originated in our culture versus those that have been cast upon us? Are some of our cultural failings merely socioeconomic injustices with a Spanglish accent? Instead of sorting them out, it might be best to acknowledge their interconnectedness and work toward alleviating them as best we can as opposed to merely aiming to facilitate full acculturation–which again may be the conclusion John Q. Public takes away from these popular reports. In an ideal world, a young Latina would not be forced to choose between rejecting all traditions instilled in her by her family in order to acclimate to mainstream American society and achieve autonomy. In an ideal world, she should be able to procure the health, educational and financial resources to choose elements of both cultures to whatever extent she pleases. That, of course, is easier said than done, but it is possible.

Exaggerated claims of young suicidal Latinas not being able to handle adult life as “normal” American women has the potential to do a profound disservice to both Latinos themselves and to outsiders viewing Latinos and certain elements of Latino culture through–given the political and socioeconomic struggles of Latinos in America today–an increasingly critical lens. There is a difference between someone wanting to completely end her existence and someone who wants to no longer be in her current life. One person downs a handful of pills with the intent of dying. The other may simply be looking for a chemical escape of sorts; a desire to pause her life as she knows it voiced in a cry for for help.

For every tragically unacculturated, abused, underprivileged, single-mother, posterchild-for-suicide Latina in these pieces published by CNN and The Washington Post, there are droves of strong Latina women whose story will not be told. These are women who have successfully navigated their way through adolescence and young adulthood within a Latino family in the United States overcoming a gamut of potentially dysfunctional or, in other cases, explicitly dysfunctional conditions: absent or overbearing fathers, strained relationships with mothers, verbal, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of relatives or significant others, cultural conflicts, sexuality and gender role issues, etc. Furthermore, the travails involved in achieving autonomy during adolescence are not unique to Latinas or women. Many people, too, have passed through the gulf of major depression and emerged, living, on the other side, better for it. Working to maximize the number of all people who can make it through to the other side is a task that we mustn’t let fall to the wayside.

By no means do I wish to downplay the problems that plague our community or minimize the serious, potentially fatal, symptoms of mental illness. As someone who has lost a young twenty-something friend to suicide when I too was in my early twenties and witnessed a failed suicide attempt by a family member, I can personally attest to its unfortunate realities. My main concern with the elevated suicide attempt rate among Latinas brouhaha has to do with how the public at large will digest and interpret the well-intentioned academic research that has been butchered to be more palatable for John Q. If we take this data, recognize limitations within it, and work toward finding ways specific populations can be best served by mental health practitioners and interventions, then we are well on our way to strengthening our community. If this information is used as evidence of how disturbingly different Latinos are from mainstream American culture and how weak and hopeless Latinas are, then we still have a long way to go.

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