Erika Sánchez began to have suicidal thoughts when she was 13. Sánchez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Chicago, had always been melancholy, but during puberty she became hopeless. Unbeknownst to friends and family, she cried constantly. Before long, she began to cut herself.
When Sánchez was hospitalized at age 15, her parents finally realized it wasn’t just “normal” sadness that plagued their daughter — it was mental illness.
“Finally, they began to really see me,” says Sanchez, now 32 and a writer in Chicago. “And that’s when we began to have more honest conversations.”
For Latina adolescents coming of age, this is not uncommon. In fact, Latina teens currently have the highest rate of suicide attempts among all adolescent groups in the U.S. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 youth high-risk behavior survey released earlier this month, 15 percent of Latina adolescents in the U.S. have attempted suicide. That’s compared to 9.8 percent and 10.2 percent for white and black female teens, respectively. Nearly 26 percent of Latina teens considered suicide.
“This is a very clear, but very overlooked trend,” says Dr. Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, who is the foremost researcher studying Latina teens and suicide rates.
Zayas says many of the teens who suffer from depression were born in the U.S. but have immigrant parents who come from cultures where there’s no awareness of or vocabulary around mental illness. Many teens begin to suffer when they reach adolescence, precisely when they’re yearning for independence. Indeed, 14 to 15 is the peak age for suicide attempts among Latina girls.
“The want for independence rubs up against their parents, who often have more traditional values that they try to put on their children,” Zayas says.
As a Latina from a working-class immigrant family, Sánchez says she often felt different from her peers growing up. But she didn’t always fit in among her family either. That left her feeling isolated and misunderstood.
She remembers going to the zoo in Chicago with her friends when she was 16. She thought it was a fun, harmless outing. But when she got home, her parents reacted angrily that she’d been out of the house for so many hours.
“I didn’t get that. I just wanted to be independent,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t this version of an ideal Mexican daughter that they expected.”
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