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    Provost Series speaker talks suicide rates

    Luis H. Zayas, director of the Center for Latino Research, spoke to an audience at the Wang Center on Oct. 10 about the high rate of suicide among Latinas. (Ozal Mammadli / The Statesman)

    Luis H. Zayas, founder and director of the Center for Latino Family Research, came to Stony Brook University to present the findings of his recent research on Latina teenagers and suicide. The Center for Latino Family Research, located at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, is the only center in a school of social work that conducts research on Latino social health, mental health, and family and community development in the United States and Latin America. Zayas’s presentation took place on Oct. 10 in the Wang Center and was sponsored by Hispanic Heritage Month.

    In his research, Zayas looked at why Latina teenagers attempt suicide at a higher rate than other American teenagers in the same age group. In his findings, written in a book entitled “Latinas Attempting Suicide: When Culture, Families and Daughters Collide,” he begins to uncover why one in seven Latinas attempt suicide, as compared to other races, which have a suicide attempt rate of one out of every ten girls.

    As a social worker in the South Bronx and the Lower East Side in the 1970s, Zayas saw a pattern of young Latinas, mostly Puerto Ricans, coming into the emergency room, because of attempted suicide. This pattern continued into the 1980s, but the trend soon expanded to include Dominicans, Mexicans, Cubans, and other Hispanic groups.

    Up until the 1990s, there was little knowledge of suicide attempts. Never before was anything written or confirmed about the high rates of suicide attempts among young Latinas, because there was never any evidence. But, in 1991, a national survey was given to high school students that confirmed Zayas’ theory about a pattern in Latinas attempted suicide. By 1995 studies found that one in five Latinas attempted suicide. This was enough to prove that more research was needed on this topic.

    Zayas began his research with the following questions, “Why do some Latinas attempt suicide and others don’t despite similar characteristics?” and “What are the elements in the suicide attempt?”

    Zayas worked with Latinas from New York City who were between the ages of 12 and 19. He created a clinical group with 122 Latinas who had one or more suicide attempts in the last six months. He then made a comparison group that included 110 Latinas who had never attempted suicide.  Zayas conducted in-depth interviews and objective measures with the girls and their mothers and fathers, using qualitative and quantitative analysis.

    Zayas discussed some of his findings from those interviews. Attempters of suicide had twice as much conflict with their parents than the non-attempters. Attempters also reported much lower affection, support, and communication with their parents than the non-attempters.

    When asked about their relationship with their mothers, both groups complained that their mothers did not understand them, but the attempters group reported much lower compatibility with their mothers, in contrast to the non-attempters who felt that even though their mothers didn’t understand them, their mothers did everything for them out of love. The mothers of both groups were asked about their relationship with their daughters, and the majority of mothers in both groups felt they were in-tune with their daughters.

    When it came to the fathers, many of them were absent in the lives of the females that attempted suicide. Triggers that led the Latinas to commit suicide were overwhelming emotions such as feeling trapped, helpless, and agitated. The result of the study showed that the Latinas who did not attempt suicide were those who were supported by family and friends and had families able to deal with the problems they had at home.

    Two points that emerged from these findings are summarized in  Zayas’ book, “Latinas Attempting Suicide.” The book states, “The first point is that having a mother who works outside of the home does not seem to raise the likelihood that a girl will be identified as an attempter. The second is that Latinas who never registered a suicide attempt in their lives were more likely to live in homes with both biological parents.”

    This is the first main study done by Zayas, which compared suicide elements in Latina versus Latina. In his next study, he would like to research and possibly write a second book on cross-ethnic comparisons. Zayas said he has about 20 years of research ahead of him before all his questions can be answered.

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