Latina teen girls have surprisingly high rate of attempted suicide

Caught between a sexualized culture and a home life demanding modesty, Latinas face a dilemma familiar to girls of all ethnic backgrounds.


Carol Lloyd
January 24, 2008 9:35PM (UTC)

A story in the Washington Post about the high rate of attempted suicide among teenage Latinas got me asking that perennial feminist question -- just how far have we really come? According to the article, which draws from (but fails to mention!) recent research published in the American Psychologist about the cultural influences in adolescent suicide, Latinas between 12 and 17 are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group of that age range to attempt suicide. Studies have found that 25 percent of Latinas have considered suicide and 15 percent have attempted it. Other studies estimate attempt rates at closer to 20 percent.

Nauseatingly high, I know. But at 10 percent, the rate of suicide attempts for white and black girls is hardly palatable, either.

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The Post story interviews Luis Zayas, one of the authors of the journal article, who explains the high rates of Latina teen suicide attempts in terms of special cultural stressors among Latino immigrants.

Paraphrasing Zayas, the Post writes: "Were these girls living in the countries they or their parents were born in -- where they might enjoy strong ties to relatives, communities and familiar customs -- there's a good chance they wouldn't feel a need to act out, Zayas says. But here they struggle with feelings of powerlessness and frustration, torn between an American popular culture that encourages them to be sexy and assertive, and family expectations that they be modest and submissive."

The story also cites research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that Hispanics have the highest unmarried birthrate nationally, adding that "experts say many youths who have attempted suicide have witnessed a parade of boyfriends move in and out of their homes. Abuse is not infrequent and can contribute to feelings of worthlessness." All these influences seem to fly in the face of cultural stereotypes that Latinos, despite the trauma of immigration, poverty and racism, tend to have stronger family ties than many other American subcultures.

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But what struck me was the precarious teeter-totter "sexy and assertive" versus "modest and submissive." To me, this formulation sounds a little like what teen girls (whose suicide rates are on the rise in general) often experience no matter their background. It's also the formulation that antifeminist pundits often employ to suggest that young women, battered by contradictory expectations, are more unhappy and screwed up now after 30 years of feminism than ever before.

I'm not taking issue with the researchers' conclusions that Latina teens may be uniquely torn between their family's values and their new nation's culture, but I also wonder if it's not a microcosm of what a lot of teen girls go through: Sure they have more choices now, but few of them look like real freedom, self-determination and equality.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

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Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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