Fifteen percent of Hispanic teen girls report that they've attempted suicide--a rate one and a half times that reported by white or black females age 12 to 17 and nearly two times that of Hispanic teen males. Yet Latinas are often the least likely to seek mental health services, according to an article in January's American Psychologist (Vol. 63, No. 1). This is often due to a lack of familiarity with the U.S. mental health-care system, says psychologist Luis H. Zayas, PhD, director of the Center for Latino Family Research at Washington University in St. Louis.
Zayas's preliminary findings from research comparing nearly 200 Latina teen suicide attempters and nonattempters suggest that conflicts with their mothers may prompt their desperate thoughts. These troubled Latina teens, who may be immigrants or the children of immigrants, feel torn between the traditional Hispanic cultural beliefs of their parents and the pull of adolescence in a new culture, which often leads to destructive behavior, Zayas says.
"A lot of the conflict comes about because their parents don't understand what it means to be a teenage girl in the United States," he says.
Psychologists can help lower suicide attempt rates by developing school-based programs for Latina students that teach stress management techniques and an appreciation for traditional Hispanic values, Zayas says. Similarly, evening programs for parents could explore the conflicting pulls of U.S. acculturation and offer solutions such as allowing daughters to have boys over to the house for supervised activities, rather than forbidding them to date--which may provide a teen with the freedom she craves.