The campaigns by medical professionals, public health officials and former sufferers to raise awareness about the true prevalence and seriousness of depression have achieved excellent results, for the most part. But for a variety of reasons, depression in teens is still being underdiagnosed and inadequately treated. We have a long way to go before we will be able to say that everything that could be done to help young people overcome this subtle but insidious form of mental illness is being done, and that kids everywhere know the signs and risks of depression and are coming forward when they know they need help.
This latter statement is generically true for the entire adolescent population, but it is especially true for young women of Latin descent. Hispanic girls have a higher incidence of depression than any other ethnic or racial group in the female adolescent demographic, and this has translated into an extraordinarily elevated rate of suicide. A 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that a shocking 13.5 percent of Hispanic girls in the 14 to 18 age group had attempted suicide at some point, which was 5 percent higher than the number of African-American females and 6 percent higher than the number of non-Hispanic white girls who had done so.
Searching for Answers
Speculation about the reasons so many Latinas are struggling with depression has centered on the clash of cultures that often occurs when young men and women are raised by parents and/or extended families that originally came from another country.
Traditional Latin American culture is very family oriented, but it has also tended to support strong gender divisions that celebrate male achievement and success while relegating women to the role of homemaker. Like the rest of the world, Latin American nations have been evolving in this regard, and the situation for young women from Latin backgrounds is certainly not as stultifying and restricted as it used to be. But nevertheless, young Latinas born in the United States often find themselves torn between the assumptions and expectations of their parents and their own hopes and dreams for the future, which are usually no different that those of the average American teenager. Because families play such a central role in the lives of Hispanics, young girls who believe they are going against the wishes of their elders may feel a strong sense of guilt, or conversely they may not feel justified in pursuing their passions or choosing unique life paths if they believe their parents may not approve. This inevitably creates inner tension and a persistent sense of frustration that if allowed to fester can eventually turn into depression, which is really just the mind’s defense mechanism for coping with what it sees as impossible or irresolvable circumstances.
But while the “clash of cultures” meme undoubtedly does carry a grain of truth, the high rate of depression and suicide among Hispanic girls likely has just as much to do with the failure of the greater mental health service community to adequately address the specific needs of this group. Hispanics are under-represented in the psychological professions, and this has hampered the effectiveness of outreach efforts aimed at Hispanic youth, to the extent that such efforts have existed at all. There has been a stigma connected to mental illness that has long helped to keep it hidden in the shadows, and unfortunately that stigma has been slow to disappear among Hispanics in general because so little has been done to address it. This is especially unfortunate for depressed young Latinas, who desperately need the opportunity to speak with caring professionals about the confusion they feel and the emotional conflicts they are experiencing.
Bringing Light to the Shadows
It is certainly worthwhile to look for deeper causes to explain why so many young Latinas are suffering from depression, and why the suicide rates among this adolescent subgroup are so appallingly high. Campaigns to reach this group and address these problems are badly needed; however, it should never be forgotten that each young person struggling with depression is a unique individual with a distinctive life history and will need personalized treatment if she is to overcome her battle with mental illness. Ultimately, the final goal of the mental health profession must be to help each individual dealing with mental illness find her way back to good health, and knowledge about which parts of our collective community are not being effectively engaged by current outreach strategies will help make this goal far more achievable in the future.
Too many Hispanic girls are being allowed to suffer in silence. Frustrated and perplexed by their circumstances, discouraged about their futures and unable to find an outlet to express everything they have been thinking and feeling, at one point or another almost one in seven Latinas have become so depressed and hopeless that she has tried to kill herself—and of course many of them have succeeded, leaving behind shattered and devastated families. This unfolding tragedy must be recognized and acknowledged by mental health treatment providers and the Hispanic community as a whole as they share a duty and responsibility to help these innocent young people find peace and good health.