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Researching Latinas In Crisis

Researching Latinas In Crisis

When Dr. Luis H. Zayas was a clinician at a New York City hospital during the 1980s, he was stunned by how many teenaged Hispanic girls attempted suicide. As a native Puerto Rican, he was deeply bothered by the phenomenon, and the academic in him sought to understand its causes and find a solution.

“When you have one in five girls attempting suicide, you’ve got to worry,” says Zayas, who is now a professor of social work and psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. “Imagine if we had one in five with tuberculosis. You’d worry. So it constitutes a public health issue, because an attempt often leads to a second attempt.”

Zayas is partnering with mental health agencies and hospitals in New York City to study the causes of suicide attempts among Hispanic girls. At 20 percent, the rate is the highest among all ethnicities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Hispanics born in the United States to immigrant parents are the most likely to attempt suicide. Poverty also appears to play a role. But Zayas, who has a background in developmental psychology, says he intends to focus on culture, believing that gender roles, ethnic identity and adolescent-parental conflict are also major factors. He also questions whether cultural conflicts could be having an effect, as American culture is often more independent than traditional family-focused Hispanic cultures.

Conflicts are “common among immigrant parents who don’t quite understand what it’s like to be a teenager growing up in this country. The girls feel a great deal of pressure,” Zayas says. “We want to understand the girls’ experience and the forces around them at home and in school that give rise to influence the attempt. Then we want to put in place prevention programs, and we think the best place to do that is in the schools.”

— By Christina Asquith

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