Erika Sánchez began to have suicidal thoughts when she was 13. Sánchez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Chicago, had always been melancholy, but during puberty she became hopeless. Unbeknownst to friends and family, she cried constantly. Before long, she began to cut herself.
When Sánchez was hospitalized at age 15, her parents finally realized it wasn’t just "normal" sadness that plagued their daughter -- it was mental illness.
“Finally, they began to really see me,” says Sanchez, now 32 and a writer in Chicago. “And that’s when we began to have more honest conversations.”
For Latina adolescents coming of age, this is not uncommon. In fact, Latina teens currently have the highest rate of suicide attempts among all adolescent groups in the U.S. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 youth high-risk behavior survey released earlier this month, 15 percent of Latina adolescents in the U.S. have attempted suicide. That’s compared to 9.8 percent and 10.2 percent for white and black female teens, respectively. Nearly 26 percent of Latina teens considered suicide.
“This is a very clear, but very overlooked trend,” says Dr. Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, who is the foremost researcher studying Latina teens and suicide rates.
Zayas says many of the teens who suffer from depression were born in the U.S. but have immigrant parents who come from cultures where there’s no awareness of or vocabulary around mental illness. Many teens begin to suffer when they reach adolescence, precisely when they’re yearning for independence. Indeed, 14 to 15 is the peak age for suicide attempts among Latina girls.
“The want for independence rubs up against their parents, who often have more traditional values that they try to put on their children,” Zayas says.
As a Latina from a working-class immigrant family, Sánchez says she often felt different from her peers growing up. But she didn’t always fit in among her family either. That left her feeling isolated and misunderstood.
She remembers going to the zoo in Chicago with her friends when she was 16. She thought it was a fun, harmless outing. But when she got home, her parents reacted angrily that she’d been out of the house for so many hours.
“I didn’t get that. I just wanted to be independent,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t this version of an ideal Mexican daughter that they expected.”
Zayas says families should consider if they are adjusting to their teen’s needs. “Can the child create their own bicultural identity?” he says. “Is the family allowing the teen to experiment and search for independence?”
He says communication between parents and their children is crucial, and especially between mothers and daughters.
A New York-based health and housing nonprofit, Comunilife, specifically addresses the Latina teen suicide epidemic through their “Life is Precious” program. In addition to educational support, art therapy and wellness activities, the program includes a strong family component.
Dr. Rosa M. Gil, Comunilife's founder, president and CEO, is originally from Cuba and began the program in 2008 after seeing Latina suicide rate data from the CDC, which she calls “alarming.”
The program’s goal is to “eliminate suicide by Latina adolescents by giving them tools that build their resistance and provide the skills to succeed.” Today, 120 teens from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens participate. All come from low-income families in New York City.
Though Life is Precious has had exceptional results, it’s the only program in the country specifically designed for this population. That’s why Gil is working to get the program’s method certified as an evidence-based practice that is a “gold standard.”
“I want people in Miami, California or Chicago to be able to create this program there,” she says. “I really cannot understand why there are not more cities that are working on this.”
After pushing for national attention for decades, Zayas says he’s similarly stunned. In 1995, a staggering 1 in 5 Latina teens attempted suicide, he says. “I thought attention would mount,” he says. “I don't have the resources or celebrity to do this myself. I’m just a researcher doing what I can.”
He points out that some of the most alarming numbers come from states with a small population of overall Latinos, which underscores the importance of family and community support. In 2015, some of the highest number of Latina suicide attempts were seen in Hawaii, Idaho, Maine and Montana. In Wyoming, data shows 21.7 percent of Latinas attempted suicide.
Overall, among all genders, 35.3 percent of Latino high school students felt sad or hopeless, compared to 28.6 percent of white and 25.2 percent of black high school students. Almost 19 percent of Latino high school students seriously considered attempting suicide, compared to 17.2 percent of white and 14.5 percent of black high school students. And 11.3 percent of Latino high school students attempted suicide, compared to 8.9 percent of black and 6.8 percent of white high school students.
Sánchez now writes openly about her teenage years and her struggles with depression. Her first young adult novel will be published next year, dealing specifically with themes around depression. And yet, she says the data underscores how young Latinas are still a forgotten demographic.
“People don’t care about us,” she says. “That’s how I feel.”