In recent years, one in five U.S. Latina teens attempted suicide. Though this rate is startlingly higher than their non-Hispanic peers, "efforts to understand the phenomenon have been hampered by a dearth of solid statistics and research," says Luis H. Zayas, Ph.D., professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis.
"We have developed a new research model that will help us to understand what is really behind those statistics," says Zayas, an expert on mental health issues in the Latino community with a background in developmental psychology.
According to Zayas, traditional gender roles, ethnic identity and adolescent-parental conflict seem to converge in a Latina teen's suicide attempt. Girls are expected, in traditional Latino culture, to control their anger and to show their obligation to their families and parents, while struggling with the same developmental issues that other adolescents deal with, such as dating, sexuality, autonomy and peer-group pressure.
"Other studies have shown that suicide rates are higher among Latinos in the U.S. than in their countries of origin and that the process of coming in contact with American culture, or acculturation, may be related to the higher risk," he says.
"However, how acculturation and family relationships influence adolescent Hispanic girls' suicide attempts remains unclear. One possibility is that the stress of acculturation may be lessened or heightened by parents' flexibility or rigidity in their interactions with the girl."
Zayas' research model looks specifically at cultural traditions, family functioning and adolescent development when examining Latina teen suicide. It seems that, with adolescent suicide attempters of other racial or ethnic groups, peers may play an important role, whereas with Latina adolescents they seem to be less important.
"These suicide attempts represent a major developmental struggle between the adolescent's need for autonomy in identity and sexuality and her deep regard for family unity that comes from Hispanic culture."
Luis H. Zayas
This new model, described in the article, "Why Do So Many Latina Teens Attempt Suicide? A Conceptual Model for Research," in the second issue of volume 75 of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (2005 p.275-287), uses focused, in-depth interviews that elicit narratives of the suicide attempts from both the adolescent girls and their parents.
Zayas has launched his research in New York City in partnership with several mental health agencies and hospitals.
"Another important issue that must be taken into account is what young Latinas themselves call the phenomenon," he says. "Although it is labeled a suicide attempt by the medical community, research shows that the behaviors are seldom lethal and that death was usually not intended.
"Perhaps the phenomenon represents something else to the girls themselves," Zayas says. "Therefore, asking girls what they call the experience may help us determine whether a particular appellation exists in the Hispanic culture. Our early data seem to bear this out, although we have a long way to go."
Zayas developed this research model with Rebecca Lester, Ph.D., professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University; Leopoldo J. Cabassa, Ph.D., then a predoctoral fellow at Washington University and now at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles; and Lisa R. Fortuna, M.D., instructor in psychiatry at Harvard University.