Crying Out For Help

Jocelyn Gray, left, talks with Ana Martinez about a friend: "She was having trouble with her parents," Jocelyn says. "She asked me, 'Why should they care? I don't even care about myself.'"
Jocelyn Gray, left, talks with Ana Martinez about a friend: "She was having trouble with her parents," Jocelyn says. "She asked me, 'Why should they care? I don't even care about myself.'" (Lois Raimondo - The Washington Post)
By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The second time Michelle, 16, swallowed sleeping pills, she collapsed on the living room floor.

It was late at night, and her mom, Maribel, jumped up from her chair, managed to pick up her skinny, 5-foot-10-inch eldest daughter, slapped her a couple of times hoping to bring her back to consciousness, and let go. Michelle fell down again and her eyes rolled back.

Maribel, who's from Puerto Rico, says she thought Michelle was drunk. She grabbed a blanket and a pillow and lay down next to Michelle, thinking her daughter would eventually wake up.

A few hours later, the sun rose over their small home in a working-class section of New York City and, unable to rouse Michelle, Maribel yelled at someone in the house to call 911.

An ambulance arrived along with a couple of police officers, one of whom suggested Michelle was faking unconsciousness. "You're daughter's probably just joking," he told her.

It was no joke. Michelle had swallowed an entire bottle of Ambien and didn't wake until she had been checked into a nearby hospital in the Bronx. She spent two days there. She then was transferred to a psychiatric unit in Manhattan -- one young Latina among approximately 2 million in the United States who have attempted suicide.

Latinas ages 12 to 17 are the largest minority group of girls in the country, and growing. They are more likely to try to take their lives than any other racial or ethnic group their age. Twenty-five percent say they've thought about suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and about 15 percent attempt it, compared with approximately 10 percent of white and black teen girls. Other studies put the proportion of attempters at 20 percent -- slightly less than the fraction who smoke cigarettes.

In most cases, a girl swallows pills at home, according to Luis Zayas, a psychologist and professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis. Zayas is in the middle of a five-year study of more than 150 young Latina girls who have attempted suicide. He says cutting is also finding a following among Latinas.

The physical pain of cutting helps to mask their emotional pain, says Carolina Hausman, a social worker who assists Zayas. "These adolescents have intense emotions and no tools to process them," she adds. "Their body has to be calmed down somehow. They talk about seeing blood go down their wrist as a release."

Suicide attempts can spread like a virus, from girlfriend to girlfriend. Michelle -- whose last name, like some others in this article, has been withheld to protect her privacy -- says she knew of two girls who had made attempts before she did. A friend of one girl Hausman works with not only told the girl how to cut herself but advised her to minimize the pain by putting Vaseline on the area.

Zayas and other experts suggest that suicide attempts like these are more a cry for help than evidence of a will to die. Were these girls living in the countries they or their parents were born in -- where they might enjoy strong ties to relatives, communities and familiar customs -- there's a good chance they wouldn't feel a need to act out, Zayas says. But here they struggle with feelings of powerlessness and frustration, torn between an American popular culture that encourages them to be sexy and assertive, and family expectations that they be modest and submissive.

Add to that the isolation they may feel in school and you get some pretty depressed teenagers, Zayas says. They rarely seek help partly because they and their parents are suspicious of mental health services and believe in keeping family troubles in the family.

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