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October 2012

Support for Precious Lives: A Suicide Prevention Program Helps Troubled Latina Teens

Girls in the Life is Precious Program created drawing sof themselves and the feelings they attach to their bodies. Nine of these artworks were exhibited at El Museo del Barrio.
At the age of seven, Diana Martinez moved with her mother from Mexico to the Bronx. Diana tried to fit in, struggling to learn a new language and the traditions and culture of the City, but it was hard. Kids at school teased her and called her a “Mexican immigrant” years after she had moved to New York. At the age of 12, Diana fell in with a gang and for the first time felt as if she was part of something. But she could feel her attitude changing: she skipped classes and she started fighting with her mother all the time.

Diana began hurting herself. “I started cutting my wrists as a way of dealing with my problems and emotions,” she writes years later. “I felt like nothing was important to me, not even my life. I use to think about killing myself at times.” Her mother sent her to the hospital, where she was referred to a suicide prevention program for Latina girls. It was this program, aptly named Life is Precious, that helped turn everything around.

Some might assume Diana’s case is an outlier, but the shocking reality is that suicidal thoughts and actions like Diana’s are all too common among Latina teens. In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 30 percent of Latinas in New York City between the ages of 13 and 19 have given serious thought to suicide. Nationally, 15 percent of Latinas made suicide attempts, compared to 9 percent of their white or African-American peers. New York City has the highest rate of suicide attempts among Latina youth—10 percent greater than the national average.

Most Latinas who attempt suicide are like Diana, from low-income immigrant families. Unlike Diana, many don’t display signs of their distress before taking action to end their lives. And although more Hispanic girls are hospitalized for depression than girls of other ethnicities, for many, mental health care isn’t enough; 60 percent of Latinas who have received mental health care attempt suicide again.

So why are young Latinas particularly susceptible to these desperate feelings? Dr. Rosa Gil, president and CEO of Comunilife, the organization that runs Life is Precious, explains that Latina adolescents experience an inordinate amount of emotional stress due to conflicts with their mothers. Schools often undermine a mother’s authority by having her misbehaving daughter serve as the translator in disciplinary meetings. As a result, Dr. Gil says, Latina girls lack the guidance they need and feel very isolated because of a constant feeling of uncertainty over their ethnic and racial identity. Suicide feels like the only way out of this oppressive sadness.

Comunilife is a nonprofit health and human services agency that provides services to individuals living with mental illness, addictive disorders, and HIV/AIDS. With grants in 2007 and again in 2009, the Trust provided a total of $225,000 to Comunilife and its original collaborator, the Puerto Rican Family Institute, to begin a suicide-prevention program in the Bronx. The program, originally called Mi Casa Es Su Casa (my home is your home) and later renamed Life is Precious to reflect the high value of life in Latin culture, helps troubled Latina teens build self-confidence, reduce social isolation, and overcome differences with their families.

Girls in the Life is Precious Program created drawings of themselves and the feelings they attach to their bodies. Nine of these artworks were exhibited at El Museo del Barrio. Photo courtesy of Comunilife Life is Precious takes an informal and responsive approach with teens and their families, combining traditional mental health interventions with academic support and cultural, social, and family activities. In addition to receiving psychotherapy, girls get tutoring and homework help and take part in creative arts therapy, using photography, visual arts, and dance and movement.

Another key facet of the program is its non-stigmatizing approach to engaging Hispanic families in their daughters’ mental health. Every Saturday, parents get involved through Tertulia, casual social gatherings where mothers can chat over coffee and fathers can play dominoes.

Growing and Getting Results

Life is Precious has been a great success in only its first few years. Since 2008, the program has helped more than 150 girls, many of whom stay involved with the program through peer-mentoring for current participants. None of the girls who have been through the program have committed suicide and many have gone on to college.

Comunilife has raised awareness of Latina suicide and now legislators are taking note; with additional State and City funding the organization has been able to expand its impact. U.S. Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez allotted $167,000 in discretionary funding to help Life is Precious establish a presence in Bushwick and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, two neighborhoods in her district where suicide attempts by Latina teens are also rampant. In the past two years, the City Council has given nearly $200,000 in support of Life is Precious. The NYS Office of Mental Health made a three-year grant of $300,000 to turn Comunilife’s Bronx center into one of five youth suicide prevention centers across the State. The newly dubbed Latino Youth Prevention Center will now have the resources to help boys and mount a public awareness campaign beyond the Bronx, teaching parents, schools, and churches the signs of potential suicide.

And Diana? Thanks to Life is Precious, she doesn’t cut herself anymore and thoughts of suicide have lifted. She’s stopped hanging out with gang members. Her grades have improved and so has her relationship with her mom. “Now I realized that life is a beautiful thing,” says Diana. “You could be so happy with many things. La vida es preciosa.”


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