Culture, religion and language play a part in how immigrants think and speak about suicide, according to experts.
In the case of Latino immigrants in particular, suicide (or its ideation) may be stigmatized as a sin or as a sign of cowardice. It is rarely spoken about as a health concern.
Many people think that suicide is a reaction to something bad that happens to a person, but actually it has well-defined biological basis,” said Dr. Maria Oquendo, president of the American Psychiatric Association, and professor and chairman of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
While the primary suicide trigger remains unknown, Oquendo said, “we know that suicide has a genetic basis and runs in families.”
“In those families where there have been suicides, the children have a higher susceptibility,” she added. “It is the same as, for example, hypertension or diabetes. It is not one hundred percent certain that they will have the disease, but it does increase the probability.”
Among the Latino population, Dr. Oquendo says, adolescents are the most vulnerable.
“We know that teenage girls have a certain vulnerability due to family conflicts — because of the cultural clash they experience. In some cases, they are required to behave in a more traditional way at home, and outside of the home it is very different. Like every teenager, [the Latina adolescent] wants to fit in.”
Those who leave the home — whether because they marry at an early age, leave to study or simply seek a different way — they don’t necessarily escape suicide ideation, however, because they are sometimes abused, or exposed to abuse.
Waleska Maldonado of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, who for many years worked as a social worker at the Latino community organization Congreso, says that many teenagers who seek help for suicide prevention are affected by drug addiction, domestic violence or a poor socio-economic status.
“Money is lacking in many homes,” Maldonado said, “but the truth is, that if they understand where to look for help, things can improve.”
“Many of the girls we worked with gained confidence and trust through therapy. And they themselves tell of their experiences because that is one of the ways in which the treatment works,” she said.
Maldonado is convinced that the mental health of immigrants, especially Latinos, can improve through open communication.