Mental health expert creates first research model to study high rate of U.S.-born Latina teen suicide attempts

In recent years, one in five U.S. Latina teens attempted suicide. Though this rate is startlingly higher than their non-Hispanic peers, “efforts to understand the phenomenon have been hampered by a dearth of solid statistics and research,” says Luis H. Zayas, Ph.D., professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis.

Luis H. Zayas

This new model, described in the article, “Why Do So Many Latina Teens Attempt Suicide? A Conceptual Model for Research,” in the second issue of volume 75 of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (2005 p.275-287), uses focused, in-depth interviews that elicit narratives of the suicide attempts from both the adolescent girls and their parents.

Zayas has launched his research in New York City in partnership with several mental health agencies and hospitals.

“Another important issue that must be taken into account is what young Latinas themselves call the phenomenon,” he says. “Although it is labeled a suicide attempt by the medical community, research shows that the behaviors are seldom lethal and that death was usually not intended.

“Perhaps the phenomenon represents something else to the girls themselves,” Zayas says. “Therefore, asking girls what they call the experience may help us determine whether a particular appellation exists in the Hispanic culture. Our early data seem to bear this out, although we have a long way to go.”

Zayas developed this research model with Rebecca Lester, Ph.D., professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University; Leopoldo J. Cabassa, Ph.D., then a predoctoral fellow at Washington University and now at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles; and Lisa R. Fortuna, M.D., instructor in psychiatry at Harvard University.