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 Latinx 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 Latinx community has considered suicide in the year prior to the survey.
Latinx 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.
Accepting cultures and talking about feelings can help prevent suicide
Latinx 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 Latinx 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 Latinx 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.
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