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Latino Teens Under the Shadow of Suicide

Fellowship Story Showcase

Latino Teens Under the Shadow of Suicide

Picture of Linda Perez

This project's goal was to explore the issue of Latino teen suicide in Georgia and what's being done in our state to prevent suicide attempts. The first part tells the story of a young Hispanic man who survived a suicide attempt and how he and his family has dealt with this situation. The second part further explores the causes of teen suicide and gives some information on the programs and initiatives that are in place in Georgia and other states that can serve as a model for teen suicide prevention.

Latino Teens Under the Shadow of Suicide
MundoHispanico
Saturday, May 21, 2011

Miguel Hernández woke up one morning depressed. He had a bad dream and suddenly felt the need of talking to someone, anybody. He called his girlfriend, his brother, his closest friends and nobody answered.

"I thought: if I don't matter enough for any of them to pick up the phone, what am I doing here?" the 23 year old remembered. Back then he was 18.

"I remembered the pain killers that I had taken when I underwent foot surgery. I took two pills with a bit of wine. It had not effect. I took another two with another sip of wine... until I lost count," the Mexican said.

"I laid down on the floor, turned off the lights, closed the door and just laid there. I did not want to be disturbed, I just wanted to end it. I lost track of time. I was there staring at the ceiling, waiting until I see nothing else," he said.

Nobody knows how much later his parents arrived home, making lots of noise celebrating their first granddaughter's six month birthday. Maria de Jesus, his mother, asked her husband to go look for Miguel.

Junior Hernandez did not know what to do when he saw his son, lying down on the floor, unconscious. They rushed him to the emergency room without knowing what had really happened.

"Finally we realized what had transpired when we were at the hospital, but nobody would talk to us. We did not have medical insurance and we did not know what to do," said Maria de Jesus.

Martin, Miguel's inseparable younger brother, did not found out what happened until the following day when he did not see his brother at school.

"It was pretty tough for me. It was like I had lost my legs since we were spending time together always. First day I felt sick, I could not sleep. I was angry at myself because I knew that if I had been home, if I had not been acting out, maybe this would have never happened," said the boy.

At the hospital, they treated Miguel; they had his stomach pumped and checked him thoroughly. They saw the cuts in his arms and they determined that the pills intake was indeed a suicide attempt. Then they sent him to a psychiatric clinic where he spent three days.

"We visited him and he didn't say anything. Until one day he told me that he felt sleepy. I thought he was just going to lie down, but he sat on the floor and put his head on my lap. That was the end of the world for me. I wanted to get him out of there no matter how," said Maria de Jesus.

Just like Miguel, 15% of high school students in Georgia have seriously thought about committing suicide, according to a study about the health of Georgia kids done by the National Council of La Raza in 2008. Nationally, suicide attempts among Hispanic teens is also alarming, specially among girls according to Puerto Rican doctor Luis Zayas, who has been studying this phenomenon for the last 20 years.

"At one point a couple of years ago one in five Latina girls had tried to commit suicide," said Zayas, who also pointed out that even though the number of attempts among Latino youngsters is high, few actually end their own life.

That was Miguel's case, whom was advised before leaving the hospital that he should see a psychiatrist, but his family could not afford it. The clinic's doctor spoke to him and Miguel said that he was not going to do it again and he could handle the situation.

To this date he has been true to his word.

A family like others

The Hernandez family is nowadays more united than ever, but this episode was really traumatic for them. Even today, four years later, they are still searching for answers to an event that, even thought did not end in tragedy, made them rethink their lives.

Like many other families, they came to the U.S. with the idea of pursuing "a better life." They arrived to Georgia nice years ago, after spending some months in California and South Carolina.

At home there was no talk about the difficulties that every member went through trying to adapt to a new life, far from family and friends from childhood in Guadalajara.

Miguel was struggling with a different culture and missed living across the street from grandparents and next to cousins. However, his parents ignored that.

"Only a few times we thought about what our kids were thinking and what were their concerns," said Maria de Jesus.

"Today I realize that it must have been very hard for them to come to this country, with another language, other traditions. But one always think that it must be easier for them," added Junior.

These difficulties and struggles seem normal, but oftentimes they drive many Latino teens to consider ending their own lives, according to Belisa Urbina, executive director of Renovacion Conyugal an organization that help Hispanic families in Georgia.

"Our teens suffer from loneliness and isolation," emphasized Urbina. "It is as if they are in a cultural limbo, where they are not Hispanic enough and not American enough. They are neither black enough, nor white enough," she added.

In case of the Latina girls, there are factors that make this crisis worse, according to doctor Zayas.

Latina teen girls, face the same challenges that other adolescents do: they want to be more self-sufficient and they start experiencing new emotions. But these desires collide head on with Hispanic parent's protectionism.

"There are traditions that are really good, but if we are living in a environment like in the U.S., these traditions crash against a very different cultural system," said the doctor who also added that this is common when the girls want to have a boyfriend or go our with their friends.

"If they would be in the Dominican Republic these teenage girls could talk to their friends and know that they are going through the same experience, but here in the U.S. they feel different than other American teens and feel isolated. There comes a point when they cannot stand it anymore and attempt to commit suicide."

Risk factors

Miguel and Martin lived a cultural shock as described by the experts.

"In middle school I started to notice that everybody was different and when I got to high school I felt that I was stuck in the middle," remembered Miguel.

Then he decided to dress differently, with dark clothes, nails painted black, eyeliner, etc. "I started to dress the same to be accepted," Miguel said. Soon Martin followed "because if we dressed with all black clothes, gloomy like, they left us alone," he said.

These kids' parents did not see that their children were dressing like that to be accepted. On the contrary this became a family topic for fighting and discord. According to Urbina, communication problems like this are also factors that can drive a teenager to feel misunderstood.

"Many times, it is not that these parents don't want to understand their children, but they ignore the pressure that they go through, mainly because during their own adolescence in their country of origin did not have to live the same experience," said Zayas.

Another factor that influences teenagers is the fact that some families come to the U.S. thinking that it is for a short period of time, according to Urbina.

"They live like camping all the time, they have no roots, thinking about leaving, there is no security and kids feed from that insecurity," explained Urbina. "The kids spend all their time alone since their parents are working all the time."

Second Chance

The Hernandez family did not receive psychological help to cope with Miguel's suicide attempt. They simply kept on living with the hope that time would heal the wounds.

"I give thanks to the Lord because we got him on time, enough time so he could be saved, otherwise I don't know what we would have done," Maria de Jesus said. "The only thing I told him was that God have given him a second chance and he should make the most out of it," she added.

For some members of the family things have not been easy.

"Today I believe that the psychologist was not just for him but for the whole family. Up to this very day I am watching him closely. If he is wearing long sleeves I ask him to show me to check for cuts on his arms. I watch that there are no meds in the house and if they get sick I give them the pills myself," she said.

"I should trust him, but it is very difficult for me. I think I am still dealing with my mourning,"she said.

The kids have been trying to focus in the future. Miguel wants to join the Army and after that he wants to become a police officer. Even though he passed many tests to join the Army, his immigration status does not allow him to move forward.

Martin wants to study design because he believes that he has a gift towards art.

Nobody in their extended family knows what really happened to Miguel. He does not want to be rejected or that others believe he could influence them to do the same.

The only place that he has found support and comfort is the organization Renovacion Conyugal. Furthermore, now they are all members and they organize different events.

Martin and Miguel got certified to help suicide attempt survivors and their families.

They have not been able to apply all their knowledge because it has been tough to create the support groups, but they are ready wherever needed.

The father, Junior Hernandez, recognized that this experience help them revaluate their own life priorities.

"One works so they have everything that they need, but sometimes they don't have the most important thing which is that one is there with them. One can buy them the best sneakers and clothes but maybe what they yearn is just to play soccer with you,"he said.

Junior and Maria de Jesus are truly grateful that their kids got a second chance in life.

"It was a second chance given to all of us," added Martin.

Why?

There are many reasons that make Latinos want to commit suicide, according to studies conducted by many specialists. Some of them are:

1. The kids received very few mental health services due to their lack of medical insurance and professional that are bilingual and bicultural on top of the difficulties that their socioeconomic status create upon them.

2. Stress associated with the immigration process and challenge of living between two cultures, learn a new language, feel the pressure to assimilate to a new culture, miss their country of origin and lack of legal status, also explain why there are more attempts of suicide by Latin youngsters in comparison with other groups.

Source: The Health of Georgia's Latino Children: Causes for Concern (Consejo Nacional La Raza).

In Georgia

-22% of Middle schools Latino students have seriously thought seriously about committing suicide, in comparison of 19% of African Americans and 17% of White.

-10% of middle school Latino students tried to end their lives in 2007 in comparison with 7% of African American and 6 % of Whites.

-15% of high school Latino students have seriously thought about suicide in comparison with 14% of African American, and 16% of White.

-23% of high school Latino teens have a suicide plan in comparison with 11% of African Americans and 11% of Whites.

Source: Health of Georgia's Latino Children: Causes for Concern (Consejo Nacional La Raza).

The investigation about Latino teenager's suicides is a project supported by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

To read the original story in Spanish visit MundoHispánico.