Norma Westurn

DALLAS (WOMENSENEWS)–Two years ago, licensed mental health counselor Norma Westurn put in a full day of counseling clients at a clinic here and, instead of closing shop and going home, routinely faced yet another full client load. The only difference was the after-hours clients were all Latino.

“I was overwhelmed” by so many Spanish-speaking clients, remembers Brazilian-born Westurn, “because I was one of the few in the clinic who could speak Spanish. I knew there was a need but I was surprised there was such a great need.”

It was a void that motivated Westurn to found a chain of mental health outlets called Centro de Mi Salud (My Health Center). But it wasn’t until Westurn opened her doors for business that she realized there was a far greater necessity for her services than even she imagined.

Latina teens were visiting her clinics in increasing numbers and the majority for the same reason: They had attempted suicide.

Suicide in the teen population is not unknown. Popular data shows that suicide is the third-leading cause of death of young people ages 15 to 24. But attempted suicide among young Latinas was another story. The very idea was considered by many to be an oxymoron; Latino families are known for their close ties and cohesiveness, two deterrents of teen suicide.

But suicide attempts by Latina teens are growing, a fact which is gaining increased recognition by the medical community. According to a July report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Latina teen-agers are significantly more likely than white or black adolescent girls to have attempted suicide.

The finding is not new; an earlier report published in 1999 by the National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations (which officially changed its name to the National Alliance for Hispanic Health in 2000) found that one out of every three Latina high school students contemplates suicide. What is new is that while in past years family members might be too ashamed to report their daughter’s attempted suicide, they now actively seek help for a behavior they’re at a loss to explain–as are the doctors treating them.

Family and Culture Are Major Factors

“We don’t completely understand it,” admitted Dr. Glenn Flores, author of the report and associate professor of pediatric epidemiology and health policy at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “But an interesting piece we discovered in our research was that the more Americanized or acculturated Latino kids become, the worse it is for their health.”

It is an observation shared by mental health experts across the country.

Teen-agers have a host of insecurities about appearance, academic success, peer popularity, families and sex. To be a Latina teen-ager compounds the already typical problems of adolescence and integrates a key component: culture.

Ordinarily, the Latino culture places traditional expectations on their daughters. When a Latino family immigrates to the United States, some teen-agers find themselves in a push-and-pull match between the culture they were born into and the new culture they want to embrace.

“The adolescents want to do things their way, socially and more independently,” says Vida Yarn, a licensed professional counselor. “In the Hispanic culture, the family is more interdependent and here the kids don’t want to be held so close to the family unit. They want more social interaction with their new friends. The parents don’t understand this and then the adolescent gets depressed and acts out suicidal gestures.”

In addition to challenging the traditional expectations of the family, the Latina teen-ager also has to serve as the bridge between her parents and the new culture. The parents often depend on their child to act as their translator for everyday transactions.

The dependency, according to mental health experts, shifts the family dynamics. The child assumes the parent’s role of communicating to society, which in turn exerts adult pressures on her. The stress mounts when the child starts worrying about the health of her parents, who are the only sources of income for a family that may be struggling to make ends meet.

Hand in hand with parental dependence is the added expectation from parents for their child to do well, succeed and achieve in this new land of opportunity.

What the parents don’t count on is that their hijas (daughters) learn to take advantage of those opportunities.

“When the children speak English and the parents don’t, children will tend to manipulate the parents,” says Yarn. “They get away with a lot of things that they wouldn’t if they were in a community where everybody spoke Spanish and the school communicated well with the families.”

Schools Unprepared for Spanish-Speaking Students Isolate Young Latinas

Some mental-heath experts say school systems could do more to lessen the numbers of suicide attempts by Latina teen-agers.

Dr. Ruth Zambrana, co-author of the report and an adjunct professor of family medicine in the school of medicine at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, believes the school system is a demeaning experience for most Latinos and low-income communities.

“Research shows that most teachers are not prepared to deal with culturally different students,” Zambrana says. “The school system doesn’t give Latinas the hope, information on options and the information required” to succeed.

These factors are known to contribute to a poor self-image–a leading indicator of the likelihood of contemplating suicide. However, though these factors were known as suicide indicators, their effects on Latinas were not, because Hispanics have often been omitted from academic research studies.

The July report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Latinos are frequently not included in child-health research because studies usually exclude all non-English speakers; study designers often assume that a sample is nationally representative when only white and black subjects are analyzed; and Latinos and additional nonwhite research subjects are relegated to an “other” category.

Health experts believe that only when the medical community begins to recognize the distinct needs and differences of the Latino population can a more realistic and culturally appropriate approach to treatment and intervention occur.

An even better approach, Zambrana suggests, is a “program where the girl is provided not only mental health attention but, more important, finding out what her dreams and hopes are and help her achieve them.”

Marisa Trevino is a Rowlett, Texas-based freelance writer and public radio commentator who writes regularly on Latina issues.

For more information:

Report produced by the National Coalition of
Hispanic Health and HumanServices Organizations
“The State of Hispanic Girls”:

Journal of the American Medical Association
“The Health of Latino Children: Urgent Priorities,
Unanswered Questions, and a Research Agenda”:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: