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Health & Science

CDC: Latina Teenage Girls At Highest Risk For Attempting Suicide In U.S.

A new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that 15 percent of Latina teenagers have attempted suicide, and 25 percent have thought about it.


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Gissella is a Latina high school student in Spring Branch. During a support session with teachers and other students, she admitted she has struggled with depression since the 7th grade.

"Some days I would just, like, wake up and start crying," Gissella said.

After a relationship ended, Gissella started cutting herself. She started injuring herself again after a fight with her mom.

Gissella didn't say whether she had attempted suicide or even thought about it. But 15.1 percent of Latina teenagers have attempted suicide. That's compared to about 9.8 percent of white girls and 10.2 percent African-American girls. Among all teens, the suicide attempt rate is 8.6 percent.

"The latest numbers from the CDC don't surprise me," said Luis Zayas, Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the foremost expert on Latina girls and suicide.

"It's been like that since 1991, when the CDC first began its survey of youth risk behaviors," he added.

It's not clear why Latina girls are so vulnerable compared to other teens, Zayas said. But his research focuses on the problem of suicide among adolescent Latinas, and he has learned they experience stress on several fronts, including pressure from their parents.

"In traditional Hispanic cultures, there are clear demarcations along gender lines, about socialization: what a daughter does, compared to what a son does," Zayas explained.

The culture in American middle and high schools is oriented around autonomy and independence. That can create emotional conflict for some Latina girls who face stricter expectations at home.

Typically, those social expectations involve "having the girl be more oriented towards family and home than outward-looking, involvement with the younger siblings, taking care of things at home while the parents work," Zayas said.

This tension is more common for girls whose parents are immigrants, Zayas says. But the pressure can be relieved by teaching parents and daughters how to recognize the dynamic and discuss it.

"(In) those families who communicate well with their daughters, and make room for them to grow, we have less of a risk of a suicide attempt," Zayas said.

Zayas calls the problem "hugely unknown" and says a national organization should launch a campaign to raise awareness.


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