The word “suicide” is charged with emotion. For those whose life has been touched by the suicide of a loved one, it can be a painful reminder of the life, the hopes and the dreams that ended prematurely. And yet for some Latino families, suicide continues to be a taboo, something that affects only other families, other communities.
As much as suicide may seem like a far-away concept, far from home and far from our communities, statistics show a different reality.
According to a survey conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of every 4 teenage girls and 1 out of every 10 teenage boys in the Latino community has considered suicide in the year prior to the survey.
Latino teens are in danger
“Suicide is a public health issue that affects people from every race, every age, every gender and every class,” explains Dr. Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Long School of Medicine at UT Health in San Antonio. “But Latina teens have suicidal ideations and want to kill themselves more frequently.”
Latina teens in the United States have had higher rates of suicide attempts than Caucasian teens and Latino boys for the past 20 years, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey administered to kids age 10 to 24 by the CDC every other year.
Robles-Ramamurthy explains that when parents have immigrated from other countries but their teenage children were born and raised in the United States, parents tend to maintain their values, customs and ways of life while the teens are surrounded by a new culture. If this disparity is not handled properly, there can be stress, tension and conflict among families, and this can in turn lead children to isolate themselves.
And although the presence of two cultures is more evident in the United States, teens in Latin America are also exposed to two cultures through media, she says.
The cultural tension can come on top of the daily difficulties that many Latino families face, such as financial troubles and concerns over the immigration status of members of the family or the community.
Throughout the Americas, suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens, according to the Pan American Health Organization.
Accepting cultures and talking about feelings can help prevent suicide
Latino parents are often afraid their kids will be absorbed by a new culture and will lose touch with their roots, explains Dr. Maria Veronica Svetaz, family physician and director of Clinic Aqui Para Ti, or Here for You, in Minneapolis.
“The balance is in continuously teaching them about our culture, our rituals, our celebrations, our food … while at the same time respecting that they will want to do certain things that align more with the culture in which they are growing up,” Svetaz said.
Robles-Ramamurthy also says that Latino culture has not fostered mental health education and that the simple act of talking about feelings can help in the prevention of suicide.
“In our culture, we don’t talk about our feelings. We want to hide our family problems, leave them at home; nobody needs to know that we are going through a tough situation,” she said, adding that it is something for everyone to work on and improve.
As parents talk about their feelings, kids will learn the vocabulary to do it themselves.
Another area for improvement: stigma.
“In the Latino community, we are still very scared of stigma. We don’t want anyone to say bad things about us. We don’t want people saying ‘they’re crazy’ or ‘they’re depressed,’ ” Robles-Ramamurthy said.
The change in attitude starts with showing compassion when others are diagnosed with a mental health condition, avoiding judgment and offering support. The community can play a big role in preventing suicide.
“Preventing suicide and addressing mental health for children and teens is everyone’s responsibility,” said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Chaudhary recommends that teachers, doctors and parents check in with kids regularly to see how they are doing and how they can help.
Asking “have you thought of hurting yourself or taking your life?” in no way “plants ideas” in the minds of kids; instead, it can be the first step in opening the line of communication.
The first signs
All of us have experienced sadness at some point or another. The difference for a person who is dealing with depression is that emotions tend to be more severe and last longer; instead of lasting minutes or hours, they can last most of the day for several days, Robles-Ramamurthy explains.
Depression in kids and teens can manifest with changes in sleep or eating habits. They can isolate themselves from family and friends, often spending more time alone in their rooms. They can also become angry or irritable more easily, turning violent or rebellious and even using drugs and alcohol.
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Robles-Ramamurthy and Chaudhary say some of these can be normal behaviors in adolescence, and hence the importance of seeking professional help if parents are worried.
Signs that should never be ignored include a teen stating that he or she no longer wants to live, expressing a desire to take his or her own life or engaging in self-harm.
Where to look for help
Teachers, pediatricians and primary care clinicians are key allies in guiding parents who have a concern about the mental health of their children.
In the United States, you can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also offer contact information for crisis centers around the world.
Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez is a practicing pediatrician and a Stanford and CNN Global Health and Media Fellow.