Latinas More Likely to Take Their Lives
By Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje - San Antonio Express-News
The call came from out of the blue. Come to the hospital quickly, said a friend of Crystal Trinidad, then 14.
Lupe Morin, Crystal’s grandmother, rushed to the ER, where she found her granddaughter lying in bed, her wrists already bandaged. She had gouged them earlier with a sharp object, trying to commit suicide.
“That’s when I discovered everything that was going on,” Morin said. “Crystal was tired of seeing her mother depressed, of moving from house to house. She was frustrated they never had a home where they could settle down. They were very poor, and my daughter Letty couldn’t hold down a job because of major depression. My granddaughter felt that there was nothing in this world for her.”
The stress of Letty and Crystal’s itinerant lifestyle had finally found its dark release, in the latter’s bloody cry for help. But that wasn’t the end of it. Five years later, Crystal, by then the mother of a young child and suffering from depression, again tried to take her own life, this time imbibing a lethal mixture of drugs and alcohol.
Crystal was among 2 million young Latinas in the United States who attempted suicide in 2007. Latinas age 12 to 17 make up the largest and fastest-growing minority group of girls in the nation. And they are more at risk of trying to take their own lives than any other racial or ethnic group their age.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent of Latina teenagers have contemplated suicide and around 15 percent have attempted it, compared with 10 percent of Anglo and African-American teen girls who have attempted. Some studies put the percentage of Latina attempters even higher.
Mental illness factors largely in suicide, and this is no different for young Latinas.
Leticia Flores Canchola, director of nursing at Southwest Mental Health Center, a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents, said 60 percent of girls who are admitted for suicide attempts are Latina, which is proportional to their local population numbers.
“The majority of those who come in are sad, hopeless, helpless,” she said. “They say, ‘Nobody wants me.’ It’s a way out for them.”
But delving into exactly why Latina teen girls are at higher risk for attempting suicide presents a complicated picture. Luis Zayas, a researcher and expert on Latino psychology who is in the middle of a five-year study of more than 150 young Latinas across the country who have attempted suicide, said, “it’s not just one thing — it’s a group of things.”
Zayas said cultural expectations, gender issues, ethnic identity and adolescent-parental conflict converge in a toxic brew to push young Latinas to the edge.
“What our research is starting to show is that this is a culturally based problem,” he said. “Girls are reared in our culture where there is an emphasis on obligations to the family, on being attentive to the needs of parents and siblings. Girls in Latino culture are socialized toward parenthood, versus professional occupations.
“But you have these Latinas growing up in a mainstream American culture that says women can do what they want — they can date, they can have sex, they can dress the way they want. They don’t have to obligate themselves to family. That’s where the strain really comes in. Girls are pulled in two directions.”
In traditional Latino culture, he said, girls are raised to be obedient, passive and modest. American culture pushes them to be sexy, independent and assertive.
But there’s more at work than just cultural mixed messages when it comes to Latina suicide, Zayas said. Often in families where Latina teens try to kill themselves, there is a high level of prolonged parental-teen conflict. In families where girls make an attempt, his research shows, the parents are less flexible and more rigid regarding their daughter’s normal developmental teen milestones, such as wanting more autonomy.
“There’s a lot of chaos and mixed signals,” he said. Socio-economic and educational levels also play a role.
“Parents with college educations, who perhaps were dentists and teachers back in their home country, tend to be much more understanding of what’s going on with their girls than those coming from rural areas with a second-or third-grade education.”
Most of these girls don’t really want to die, said Zayas: Their attempts are a cry for help. If a girl was being raised back in her parent’s home country of, say, Mexico or Puerto Rico, she might have more support networks to tap into for help. (Studies show suicide rates among young Latinas in Mexico and other countries of origin are significantly lower.) But in America, she can feel very isolated.
Often what happens, said Zayas, is that prolonged conflict reaches a crescendo with a “triggering event” — a break-up with a boyfriend, a problem at school, a huge fight with parents — that pushes a Latina to attempt suicide. Add to that the lingering stigma in the Hispanic community about seeking help for mental illness such as depression or domestic troubles and you’ve got a situation ripe for a dramatic gesture.
Zayas’ research shows one of the biggest mitigating factors in whether a young Latina tries suicide concerns her relationship with her mother: The warmer and more supportive that relationship, the lower the risk of suicide.
A poor bond with her mother was one of the things that pushed Emily Losoya, now 22, to attempt suicide at 18, she explained.
“My mother had never been supportive of anything,” Losoya said. “She just wasn’t there. The only person I had to talk to was my sister, and she had kids of her own.”
Losoya spent her adolescence running away from home, which was plagued by domestic violence, she said. Her father was largely absent; her mother brought home numerous boyfriends.
As a child, Losoya was sexually molested by a family member, causing her to “feel ugly.” Chronically depressed, Losoya spent time in juvenile detention, where she was put under a suicide watch. Once out, she cut her arms with razors just to find some sort of release.
But it wasn’t until she was 18 that things really reached a boiling point. She was involved with a man who sought to control her every move, who was insanely jealous, whose anger turned physically violent at times.
“I didn’t know how to get out of it, who I could run to for help,” she said. “I was so confused, and wondered should I just stay with him. There were a lot of things going on.”
Desperate, one day at her mother’s house she took some pills. She passed out. Her sister found her and called an ambulance. At the hospital, they pumped out the contents of her stomach.
Losoya sought counseling and, slowly, began to get better. But when she was 21, she suffered the stillborn birth of an infant daughter. Traumatized by that experience, she attempted suicide again.
“Both times I felt so alone, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to, no one to understand what I was going through,” she said.
Losoya rallied and began seeking help for depression. She began attending women’s support groups at the Family Service Association. She said she understands now that the old idea that Latinas should serve their husbands no matter what is specious. She said she has turned a corner and will never attempt suicide again.
“I’m so thankful for the life I have now,” she said.
But suicide attempts leave tendrils that last a lifetime. Morin, Crystal’s grandmother, said she calls her daughter and granddaughter every day, just to make sure they are OK.
“I will do that for the rest of my life,” she said.