Latino Teen Suicide: A Problem that can be Prevented

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. This is the second part of the series, which 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.

teen suicide, reporting on health, Latino health, Linda PerezTeenage suicides are one of those topics that everybody tries to avoid, and even more so within the Latino community.

That is how Michelle Zelaya sees it. She is the coordinator for the Center of Education, Treatment and Prevention of Addictions (CETPA).

One of the causes why this topic is so "taboo" is that the attempt for taking one's life is generally the result of a mental problem – another subject that is it not of much interest for Latinos – according to Zelaya.

"The biggest problem that we Latinos have is that we have many prejudices and preconceptions about mental illness. We just don't talk about those problems," said Zelaya, who have worked for nine years with Hispanic families in Georgia.

"Many Hispanic parents don't understand that depression is a mental disease that must be treated like any other. When our kids suffer of heartache we must take care of them," added Zelaya.

Even though many parents don't realize, many teens nowadays are surrounded by sadness. For instance, in Georgia 34 percent of Hispanic high school students reported in 2007 that they felt immense sadness and hopeless during every single day for two weeks or more, to the point that they abandoned activities that they used to like, according to the Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH).

That same year, 165 Latino high school students had to get medical attention after a suicide attempt, according to DCH.

These are alarming numbers that can be prevented, said Zelaya.

"Suicide is something that can be predicted because it has symptoms that are indeed very evident. What we need to learn is to identify them," she expressed.

Even though many of such signs are easy to recognize, many times they are overlooked or they get confused with normal teenage behavior.

That is why the strategies to prevent suicide are focused on educating parents, teens and teachers, to detect these symptoms in time, to act and prevent tragedies. These are some of the initiatives that have worked on a local and national level.

The signals

These are some of the signals showing that a teen may be thinking about taking his or her own life:

1. They stay away from friends and family.

2. They have difficulties concentrating or thinking clearly.

3. Suffer changes on sleeping and eating habits (sleep or eat more or less than normal)

4. They show extreme changes on appearance (for instance they stop showering or wear only black)

5. They show feelings of guilt or hopelessness (they say things like "why should I bother if all will go wrong for me")

6. They talk about suicide or death.

7. They talk about leaving.

8. They have auto destructive behavior (drugs, alcohol, drive too fast)

9. They start to give away they dearest possessions.

10. They have sudden changes of mood (from being depressed they go to feel very happy)

A growing program

CEPTA has concentrated its largest effort in dealing with prevention and treatment of addictions among teenagers. During its interaction with teens, professionals of this organization realized that many youngsters suffered of depression.

Afterwards, there were a series of Hispanic teens suicides at a local high school and its founder decided to act.

With no financial support, CETPA initiated a campaign to educate teachers and counselors from different schools, most of them in Gwinnett county, said Michelle Zelaya, CETPA's prevention programs director.

First of all they taught the Q-P-R (Question-persuade-refer) system that has as main objective to ask teens if they wish to end their lives, persuade them not to do it and refer them to specialists for treatment.

Realizing the success of that training, the state government through its initiative of Teen suicide prevention gave CETPA the funds needed so the program could be extended.

With these funds the organization implemented an SOS program, which is based on a model utilized in many states. Main idea of this program is that the very same students help their fellow teenagers and become leaders in their communities.

Currently CETPA has 30 students between the ages of 12 to 18 that received the SOS training. These youngsters do bilingual presentations at schools and community events with the objective of educating parents and Hispanic students.

Through its advisory department, CETPA offers bilingual help to families that require support.

Support Groups

Depression and suicide attempts are topics that are often discussed during workshops run by Renovacion Conyugal, according to its executive director Mrs. Belisa Urbina.

"It is a problem that occurs more often than we think, said Urbina.

In order to help Hispanic families deal with this problem, Renovacion Conyugal certified six of its volunteers – among them a teen that attempted suicide and his brother – so they could help as leaders in support groups to family members that have lost a loved one to suicide.

Urbina explained that it is not easy to create support groups like this ones since they don't have the funds and there are not many adults that are willing to get involved in initiatives like this one.

However, the organization hopes to create at least two new groups during the next year, at least one south of the city of Atlanta.

New York's Success

In Brooklyn, New York, there is a suicide prevention program for Latina teenagers that is producing excellent results, according to its founder Dr Rosa Gil.

In that county, 22 percent of Hispanic teenagers have tried to commit suicide, according to the CDC.

In response to this numbers, in 2008 the Community Life organization created a program called "Life is Precious".

This initiative is open to Latino teenage girls between the ages of 11 and 16 that are undergoing psychological treatment and have been diagnosed with mood disorders or depression. The youngsters get tutored and also attend therapeutic art sessions that help them to show their feelings and emotions.

An essential part of the program is the participation of their families, especially their mothers.

"We feel like cultural ambassadors, we explain the girls that their mothers come from a different country where they had other traditions and to the mothers we explain the difference between their culture and the culture where their girls are growing up in," said Gil.

Since its inception two years ago more than 100 girls have benefited. During that time, four girls have attempted to take their own life and only one required medical attention after the episode. Furthermore, many of them are thinking about attending college, something that at the beginning of the program seemed like impossible to achieve, said Gil.

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 and Journalism.

If you want to read the original versio of this article in Spanish, please visit MundoHispánico.