Why Are Latina Teens at a Higher Risk for Suicide Attempts Than Their Peers?

Beyond just a “generation gap,” Latina girls also must deal with an acculturation gap between themselves and their parents.

By Alexandra Hart & Rhonda FanningJuly 13, 2016 12:25 pm|

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released data for its Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System – a survey it releases every two years which examines the health-related behaviors of high school students.

Some of the behaviors surveyed are drug use, sexual activity, dietary habits and mental health issues. One of the findings this year: Latina teens are at the highest risk of suicidal behaviors.

Dr. Luis Zayas is the dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. He has researched the phenomenon and says that while the problem isn’t a new one, it isn’t entirely understood.

“It’s been going on for well over 30 years,” Zayas says. “Certainly during these decades since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched its Youth Risk Behavior surveillance system – and that was launched in 1991 – we’ve known that young Latinas attempt suicide at rates sometimes 1.5 to 2 times higher than African American and non-Hispanic white girls.”

However, Zayas says that there are some risk factors that make them more vulnerable. One of the biggest components cultural differences between young Latinas and their parents.

“The girls are being raised in the contemporary American culture, and their parents are holding on to traditional cultures from their home countries,” he says.

Those differences complicate the already tumultuous time of adolescences.

“There’s also the girls’ developmental needs toward more independence and autonomy, something that comes with being an adolescent in the world today,” Zayas says.

A third factor is communication.

“How capable are parents in being flexible and accommodating and adapting to their daughter’s needs for this growth, while still maintaining the quality of home life that they would like?” Zayas says.

So while Latina youth and their parents have to overcome the same “generation gap” that other families face, that gap is further widened by a difference in culture.

“We talk about it all the time – the ‘generation gap’ – but on top of that, the Latina has to deal with the acculturation gap, which is the difference in the rate of acculturation to American culture and the slower rate of her parents,” Zayas says. “And that creates additional tension.”

While there’s no cure-all for the problem, Zayas says that improving communication in families can help mitigate the risk.

“It’s not just across generations, but it’s across cultures – so that parents can understand why their daughters are behaving the way they’re behaving,” he says. “Helping parents understand that their daughters are experiencing an adolescence that’s different from their own back in their countries of origin.”

But that improved communication and understanding must go both ways, Zayas says. Girls need to understand why their parents still hold on to the behaviors and beliefs that they do.

When those lines of communication improve, so does the outlook for rates of suicidal behaviors.

“As parents and girls talk more to one another and we get this kind of two-way communication going, the chances of her attempting suicide drops by about 50 percent.”