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Friday, June 3, 2011

Startling Statistics Put Focus on Latina Suicides

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the latest issue of the Norwood News, out now. 

Health care professionals and the city’s elected officials are looking for ways to tackle the daunting problem of teen suicides, as data from several sources shows that Hispanic teenagers, especially young Latinas, are disproportionately at risk for self-harm compared to other racial groups.

In the Bronx, 15.3 percent of Latina teenagers reported having attempted suicide in a 2009 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which looked at youth behavior (numbers in Staten Island and Brooklyn were even higher).

City data shows the same disturbing trend: according to a 2008 report from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 46 percent of Hispanic teenage girls polled reported feelings of “persistent sadness.”

“It’s pretty startling across the board,” said Alan Ross, executive director for the Samaritans of New York, a nonprofit suicide prevention organization that also runs a 24-hour emergency hotline.

In April, the New York City Council held a public hearing to focus the availability of suicide prevention services for adolescent Latinas. There, attendees discussed the many factors that put young Hispanic women at risk—problems often caused by a conflict between American culture and gender roles and more traditional expectations and pressures from their families.

“These young women often feel isolated, powerless and stuck in between two cultures,” Queens Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, who chairs the Council’s Women’s Issues Committee, told the crowd at the hearing. “These young women's lives are literally in the balance.”

Bronx Councilman Oliver Koppell, chair of the Committee on Mental Health, also testified at the hearing, saying the best way to tackle the problem is to expand mental health services at the city’s high schools.

“In terms of a comprehensive approach to young girls, Latina girls, and others, in my opinion the best way to reach them is through the schools. And we're not doing nearly enough,” he said.

Ross says preventing youth suicides means working across several levels—education and training for teachers and others who work directly with young people, and also reaching out to parents and teens directly.

“It’s quite an undertaking,” he said. “This is an international disease, and it’s a remarkably complex issue.”

The task is made even more daunting as funding and budget cuts over recent years have resulted in fewer resources for mental health programs and organizations.

But Ross says one important step can take place at home, something parents of teenagers can do that costs very little: communicate.

“People who are connected are less at risk than those who aren’t--the clinical term is a ‘connective factor,’” he explained. “Expand your conversations. Shut up and listen. You can’t be listening if you’re the one doing all the talking.”

Editor’s Note: The Samaritans of New York 24-hour suicide prevention hotline can be reached at (212) 673-3000.


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