Abstract: Charting Suicide Risk in Latina Adolescents (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Charting Suicide Risk in Latina Adolescents

Sunday, January 20, 2019: 9:45 AM
Union Square 18 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Lauren Gulbas, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Esther Calzada, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Peter Hovmand, PhD, Director and Professor of Practice, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Carolina Hausmann-Stabile, PhD, Assistant Professor, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA
Luis Zayas, PhD, Dean and Robert Lee Sutherland Chair in Mental Health and Social Policy, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Background and Purpose: To date, theories of suicidality have fallen short of capturing the complexities and nuances of the lived experiences of Latinos in the United States. This limitation is particularly relevant given that Latina adolescents attempt suicide at a rate 1.5 times higher than their African-American and non-Hispanic White peers. The high prevalence of suicidal behaviors has significant—and sobering—implications for the future well-being of Latina youth, as attempted suicide is demonstrated to be a strong predictor of completed suicide. System dynamics holds great promise for advancing understandings of suicidal risk within a population that is subject to powerful challenges, including migration trauma, deportation, acculturation gaps, social isolation, and racism. This presentation applies qualitative system dynamics to map potential causal feedback mechanisms that shape suicide risk among Latina adolescents.  

Methods. We present qualitative data from a sample of 60 Latina adolescents between the ages of 11 and 19 years with (n = 30) and without (n = 30) histories of suicidal behaviors. The average age of the girls was 15 years. Most were born in the U.S. (68.7%). Participants identified with several different Hispanic subgroups, but the majority identified as Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican. Data were analyzed following a grounded theory approach to develop a feedback theory that illustrates causal feedback loops likely to play a role in patterns of suicide risk among Latina adolescents.

Results. The feedback theory suggests that the interaction of several factors shaped the development of suicidal behaviors. For example, self-perceptions of worthlessness often contributed to adolescents’ decisions to skip school, engage in drug use, and participate in risky sexual activities. These behaviors, in turn, increased the likelihood of interpersonal conflict within families, resulting in a feedback loop that reinforced cognitive vulnerabilities. Over time, the accumulation of negative experiences influenced adolescents’ decisions to attempt suicide. Additionally, the feedback theory identifies key protective factors that potentially offset suicide risk. For example, results suggest that cultural socialization could be an important factor in decreasing cognitive vulnerabilities and promoting resilience in the face of adverse experiences, including discrimination and trauma.

Conclusions and Implications. For more than two decades, Latina adolescents have been shown to be at heightened risk for suicidal behaviors. Yet, few evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies have been developed that are tailored specifically to the experiences of Latina teens and their families. By examining trajectories of suicide risk, our findings point to important targets for prevention and treatment to mitigate poor mental health outcomes for Latina youth. We conclude our presentation with a discussion of potential policy and practice considerations when working with Latina teens and their families in the aftermath of a suicide attempt.