Why You Should Start Worrying About Latina Teens

>>Sad latina teenBY ASHLEY MCINTYRE

Over the last 25 years, young Latina women (specifically teens) have more likely than their Black, Asian, and Caucasian peers to attempt suicide. This is especially true for Latinas born in the United States to immigrant parents. Research shows a few reasons for this troubling trend.

Like other teenagers, Latinas are trying to establish their own identities. But unlike many of their peers, these young women and their families are also experiencing an assimilation gap on top of an age gap, leading to tension at home. These teenagers are struggling to figure out how to balance their heritage with mainstream American culture.

A couple of years ago, I started volunteering with >>El Futuro, a North Carolina nonprofit that provides culturally sensitive, bilingual behavioral healthcare to underserved Spanish-speakers. Behavioral healthcare includes research, therapy, psychiatric treatment, counseling and so much more. I’ve learned a lot of worrisome statistics about the struggles of Latinas in our state since I started volunteering at El Futuro. But for some reason, the suicide statistic bothers me the most. Maybe it’s because I’m also a child of immigrant parents. Maybe it’s because I’m in my mid-twenties, still young enough to remember how difficult my teenage years were, and maybe it’s because I’ve experienced mild bouts of depression and anxiety.

While I have definitely experienced the tension that comes from being the oldest child of immigrant parents, I had the advantage of growing up in a stable, middle-class family that spoke English. Navigating a different culture is one thing; I can’t imagine doing it with a language barrier on top.

While prevention of teen depression and suicide lies in encouraging early parent-child communication, I believe that state support for behavioral health services is critical. >>The North Carolina Department of Mental Health will take a $25 million (10%) hit on top of $12 million in cuts to Medicaid through restricted access to prescription medication. (Unfortunately, North Carolina isn’t the only state that will see these kinds of cuts in 2015; Rhode Island, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and Alaska have also cut their behavioral health care budgets for the upcoming year.)

The North Carolina General Assembly’s refusal to expand Medicaid isn’t going to help either. Medicaid is critical to providing behavioral healthcare for low-income Americans who are living with a mental illness. >>Latinos make up 9% of North Carolina’s population and 44% of Latinos under age of 17 live in poverty in NC. When such a large proportion of our population has a potential need for behavioral health services, we all should be concerned.

Enacting change will take work. We need to show lawmakers that mental illness is not something a teenager can independently and casually “get over.” We need to show that the mental health of one person can impact all of us. For example: if a young girl in school is struggling because of problems at home, she may act out in class. Her teacher has to take away from other students in order to help and discipline one child. What if your child was in this classroom? This student needs access to things like counseling so she can return to the classroom healthy and happy. Teachers can spend more time teaching and students can spend more time learning when students – and teachers – are mentally sound.

State funding for behavioral health is so important because mental health impacts more than just the person who is being treated. I’ve heard stories from psychiatrists and family members, talking about an entire family’s transformation after a loved one finishes treatment. Stronger, healthier families make for a stronger, healthier community. And that’s something from which everyone can benefit.

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