[A Guanabee post]
At 21%, the suicide rate for Latina adolescents is twice as high as that of whites and blacks. That’s something Professor Luis H. Zayas has been studying for 20 years during his career as a social worker and developmental psychologist. Zayas, who’s of Puerto Rican descent, founded and now serves as the director of the Center for Latino Family Research at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri. He has a master’s in social work and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Columbia–credentials that have allowed him to observe that Latina adolescents in the United States have a perfect storm of suicide factors: Immigration, poverty, low access to health care, language barriers, and a lack of extended family combined with cultural notions of a tight-knit family all culminate to create an acculteration clash right about the time of adolescence. Interestingly, this is true across all Hispanic groups in the United States — Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, etc. — but doesn’t hold true for these groups within their home countries, which is to say, rates for these groups are higher in the U.S. Guanabee’s new Lady site Barbara spoke to Zayas about his most recent research which will feature in his book set for release next year, Letting Out Endless Words: The Suicide Attempts of Young Latinas.
Barbara: Dr. Zayas, how did you come to study the rates of Latina suicide attempts?
Luis H. Zayas: Dr. Paul D. Trautman (a researcher), in the late 50s, was studying this phenomenon among young Puerto Rican women, he termed it the “suicidal fit,” and I stumbled upon it in the mid-to-late 80s. When I joined the faculty at Columbia (University) to work on my Ph.D., I was able to see it. I was teaching students at a city hospital in East Harlem, or Spanish Harlem, that’s when I began to come face-to-face with this phenomenon. Dominican immigration to New York began (and) we began to see them also attempting suicide, so I began to think maybe it’s not just a Puerto Rican thing, because it’s also a Caribbean thing, as I had also heard in Miami about Cuban girls. I read a newspaper report that most of the suicide attempters in Miami-Dade tended to be young Latinas. Then I thought that this is more pan-Hispanic than anything else.
Barbara: You’ve been able to not only analyze data collected by others, but conduct your own studies, in the twenty-plus years you’ve been studying this phenomenon, what have you concluded?
Zayas: We always felt that some cultural factors played a part in the higher than average rate of attempts by young Latinas. Now I’m beginning to think about it really as a cultural idiom of distress—like “ataques,” “nervios,”, “susto.” [Latino cultural idioms for mental or psychological stress.] We’re beginning to think that these suicide attempts may be a form of nervios, but expressed differently— but we’re still working on that theory. The question is, why do they decide to do suicide attempts instead of doing something else?
Barbara: How does the typically low cultural status of young Latinas play into these suicide attempts?
Zayas: It’s a [low] status that they have and the expectations that are put on them for the sense of obligation to the family, but also the sense of what the boys can do that the girls can’t do. The kind of emphasis that is given on them to for chastity and things like that and decorum that are not expected of the boys. There’s a lot there that they must take care of — the younger siblings and so on.
It’s a [low] status that they have and the expectations that are put on them for the sense of obligation to the family, but also the sense of what the boys can do that the girls can’t do. The kind of emphasis that is given on them to for chastity and things like that and decorum that are not expected of the boys.
Barbara: How do parents fit into the equation?
Zayas: There’s a lot in what I’ve written about the mother’s role, but it’s only because fathers are hard to get into treatment with their daughters–or even into research. They are not exonerated in my book. Fathers harbor a lot of guilt a lot of times because of their emotional or physical absence; a lot of times they communicate with their daughters through their wives, and a lot of times the mom gets the brunt of the girls reaction.
Barbara: What role does Catholicism play, as far as “Catholic guilt” and things like that?
Zayas: It’s hard to say. It’s melded together in a way that sometimes you can’t distinguish the culture from the religion or the religion from the culture. You never really know quite at what point culture and religion meet. Most of the girls in our studies have been Catholic, about 70%, and the others are a mix of other Christian denominations so that there is something there.
Barbara: What are the treatments for these young women and their families to prevent suicide attempts?
Zayas: I recommend family therapy. Get parents and children talking to one another because I don’t see it as a problem that the girl has. I see it as a systemic problem of the family. More often than not, it’s a situation thing related to feeling nurtured and having the sense that somebody is looking out for you and understands your feelings. Also, one of the distinguishing features of those who did not attempt (suicide) is that the non-attempters could understand where their parents were coming from, too.
Barbara: What’s next in your study of Latina suicide attempt rates?
Zayas: How culture plays a part. What we want to do in our next study is study black girls, white girls and Latinas and use the same means to find out why they attempted, even though the rates are different. Can we tease out what the cultural elements are?
[See the full post here]