The youth survey recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that when it comes to the rates of teenage suicide attempts, young Latinas continue to outpace girls and boys of other ethnic or racial groups in the U.S.
Nearly 10 years ago, news stories told of this mostly overlooked national phenomenon among a misunderstood and endangered group but one of the fastest-growing segments of the American population. And major city newspaper editorials called for more than research. They called for action.
We need action now more than ever. But more than that, we need sustained action. This is not an inconsequential issue. After all, by 2050, one in four women in the U.S. will be Hispanic.
In 2015, Latinas in high schools across the country had rates of suicide attempts of 15.1 percent compared with African American and non-Hispanic white girls whose rates were 10.2 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively. We know, too, that Latinas are also more likely to become young mothers, drop out of school and have other social problems.
The numbers for Texas are equally as bad. In Texas, girls attempted suicide at rates of 13.7 percent for Latinas, 10.2 percent for Blacks, and 9.5 percent for whites in 2013, the most recent year data is available.
When the CDC releases its survey every two years, there is some media attention. But within weeks, the story goes stale. No commissions are formed. No infusion of research dollars occurs. No celebrity or organization takes the topic as a cause to be championed through schools or social media, in Spanish or English. It’s a problem I’ve studied since the 1980s, and during the past 30 years the pattern has remained the same.
This needs to change, and change now.
It is true that there have been some local efforts to stem the problem, but there has not been systematic public interest to find ways of reducing the suicide attempts of young Latinas.
Unlike other disorders, such as drunken driving or teen pregnancy, which have large national organizations and sometimes a celebrity to spearhead an insistent, informative campaign, the problem of young Latinas has not had either of these visible leaderships. And the National Institutes of Health does little to fund research or encourage attention to this critical public health issue.
We know that triggers for Latinas’ suicide attempts are often the clash of parents’ adherence to traditional Latin American cultures and the girls’ exposure to America’s fast-paced style and its accent on a self-expression that parents often frown upon.
Depression and hopelessness play a part in the attempts. We recognized that teenage girls with families rooted in Latin American cultures are expected to adhere to traditions of tending to family, putting themselves last. They face the age-old generational gaps, but for Latinas the issues are magnified because they are young women who cannot seem to fit in at home or away from it.
To combat the problem, we simply have to do more.
It will take will and resolve in Congress and state legislatures across the country, in the White House and the state house, to fund programs that will not just reduce suicide attempts but enhance youths’ development to make living, not death, a priority. Middle school is the place to start the prevention process, not high school when it might be too late.
And any campaign must pay attention to the family, a central part of Latino cultures and a mighty antidote to suicidal behavior. In fact, research shows that improving parent-daughter communication can reduce the chance of an attempt by 50 percent.
We need more public health messaging on television and magazines on a consistent basis, and like any attack on a health problem, we need multi-pronged strategies and adequate funding to accomplish the goals. No one way will fit all.
Ten years ago, it was time to help Latinas. The need to do something – anything – is even more pressing today. And unless real, systematic action is taken, we will be in the same place 10 years from now.
Luis H. Zayas is the dean of the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
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