By Natalie Orozco

She awoke sore and confused, blood smeared all over the air bag that lay in front of her. Anita Ayuda*, 20, had no car insurance, no license, and reeked of alcohol. Suicidal thoughts were what led to Ayuda’s reckless driving.

Ayuda’s situation is part of a perplexing, underreported, national phenomenon. Latinas have the highest rate of having attempted suicide or having seriously considered hurting themselves. The National Alliance for Hispanic Health (NAHH) found that one in three Latina high school students had contemplated suicide and that one in five Latina youth will attempt it.

Ayuda, a first generation Latina from Hayward California, began this academic year with hopes of succeeding, hopes of finishing her two-year program at Heald College and transferring into an accredited four-year college afterwards to continue her education.

She had pressures at home. She was afraid to end up like her sister – pregnant, not married, with three kids at the age of 25. She did not want to follow her brother’s footsteps either — working a 15 to 20 hour day and being too busy to visit the family.

As the youngest child, Ayuda faced constant pressure from her parents to not be like her siblings and to follow the “American dream” as all other “American” teens should. The expectations that came from her two Mexican-immigrant parents were a lot easier said than reached.

“I always feel pressures from my family members,” Ayuda said. “They want to see me grow into a successful woman. They see it so often here in the U.S. … They think it’s easy, but it really isn’t.”

Ayuda admitted that her father adds to most of the daily pressures she feels. “He is always telling me that I am going to end up like my sister,” she said.

Her older sister, Jenny, got pregnant in high school when she was 17 years old. She has worked at Applebee’s, a popular restaurant chain, ever since. At 25, Jenny now lives with her boyfriend, their two children and her first born from another father.

Ayuda crawled out of her wrecked car scared and alone. She was bleeding from her head and could barely stand straight. She knew she had hit rock bottom.

“I didn’t know what to do so I just ran,” Ayuda said.

About six months ago, Ayuda saw her recently ex-boyfriend leave work with another girl. Feeling betrayed, she found comfort with some older friends and drank her sorrows away. After drinking, she decided to drive home.

“I was so drunk by that point that I was beginning to black out,” Ayuda said. “On my way home, I decided to drive by [my ex-boyfriend’s] house. I was so frustrated about what had happened. I ran into a tow truck and messed up my car.”

After fleeing, she returned to the site, but police were already there.

“They noticed the cuts on my body and assumed I was trying to hurt myself,” she said. “I told them I didn’t want to live anymore.”

Ayuda used to cut herself and the scars on her arms proved it. She admits she and her sister have made many mistakes, but the guilt she continuously felt for not going to a four-year college and for partying at such a young age eventually led to her cutting, a self injuring habit commonly associated with depression.

According to Dr. Max Camarillo, retired director of the counseling center at UCSC, “Cutting is associated with depression. Although it is not healthy, the cutter does not intend to harm or kill them self. Instead, it is a way for them to cope with their feelings. When they feel pain, they feel alive.”

Depression and suicide go hand in hand. Possible reasons identified by prior research explain that depression and fear of disapproval by parents strained by cultural differences can lead to girls having suicidal thoughts. This often makes Latina teens more susceptible to depression which, if not cured in time, can lead to suicide contemplations and attempts.

Dr. Catherine Cooper, a professor of developmental psychology at UCSC, said, “Stressful life events can happen like a break up in a relationship or pregnancy that is a humiliating life experience. Include low amounts of social support and that in turn can lead to depression and thoughts that life’s not worth living.”

Ayuda explained that she had never cut herself as an attempt to suicide, but she had thought about attempting suicide many times.

The police sent Ayuda to the hospital on a 72 hour hold. When the 72 hours passed, Ayuda was sent to a psychiatric ward for attempted suicide and clinical depression.

Unfortunately, one of the major statistics facing Latino youth today is suicide, and the statistics are still rising, particularly in Latina female teenagers. The Center for Disease Prevention and Control found in a recent report that one in five adolescent Latinas has reported a suicidal attempt, compared to one in ten non-Hispanic whites or blacks.

Luis H. Zayas, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis, is a man who has devoted his research to finding a solution for the high rates of Latina suicides. His studies have shown that suicide rates are higher among Latinos in the U.S. than in their countries of origin and that the process of coming in contact with American culture, or acculturation, may be related to the higher risk.

“This is a public health issue,” Zayas told La Prensa, a bilingual newspaper in the US, last year. “Whenever you have rates at this level, we should all be concerned.”

According to Zayas’ research, traditional gender roles, ethnic identity, and adolescent-parental conflict seem to contribute to a Latina teen’s suicide attempt. Girls are expected, in traditional Latino culture, to conform to their female gender role. This includes controlling their anger and fulfilling constant obligations to their families and parents, while struggling with the same developmental issues that other adolescents deal with, such as dating, sexuality, and peer pressure.

U. S. Congresswoman Grace Napolitano of California told Latina Style Magazine (LSM) last year, “A lot of young women come from families [emigrated] from Mexico and are living between two worlds…and they can’t handle it. My understanding is that it has a lot to do with peer pressure and the cultural pressures, one side from the parents and one side from the peers.”

Dr. Zayas is currently working on a way to stop the Latina teen suicide rates from rising. “We have developed a new research model that will help us to understand what is really behind those statistics,” he said, in an interview with Washington University in St. Louis’ college newspaper. Zayas is an expert on mental health issues in the Latino community with a background in developmental psychology.

In 2004, the National Institute for Mental Health granted Zayas preliminary approval for a five year study that will track 200 Latinas, half of whom have attempted suicide, and their parents.

“For the first time,” Zayas announced in his public address, “research will present reasoning from the girls’ perspectives.” He hopes to complete his study by 2009.

Congresswoman Napolitano said, “We need to start addressing this so people can understand that this is a terrible thing and it can happen to anyone.”

Although Ayuda was fortunate enough to have stopped at only thoughts of suicide, the accident opened her eyes to a world of opportunities.

After leaving the ward, Ayuda was assigned to a 12-week early recovery program (ERP). In the ERP she attended different types of weekly meetings: “Life Ring Meetings”, which consist of small intimate groups of about 10 people and allow participants to express their feelings openly and receive support, and mandatory educational meetings, which are meetings that involve everyone in the program and are held once a week. Teens in the ERP also have to complete a total of four family group sessions within the 12-week time span. This is a chance to have counseling with family members and friends.

“The educational meetings vary. They cover life topics like anger management, time management, or depression and anxiety … every week there is a different theme. I feel like I’m in school again,” Ayuda joked.

These group sessions are vital to the teenagers recovery. And Ayuda now understands that she had a problem.

“I sometimes catch myself thinking: ‘What if I hadn’t drank? What if I had a different life? A different family? What if I lived somewhere else?’” Ayuda said. “These thoughts scare me because it makes me wonder if I’m getting sucked back into that depression mode.”

According to Dr. Camarillo, these thoughts often reveal a person’s sense of futility of life. “When people talk like that,” Dr. Camarillo said, “it indicates that they do not want to live. That person is thinking of suicide.”

Although Camarillo was not aware of the actual statistical rate of Latina Teen suicide attempts, he was not surprised.

“Just by looking at the demographics for the Latino youth population, especially in California, there are reoccurring rates of under achievement. They have a 50 percent dropout rate, usually low income, and poor health because of their social economic states,” Camarillo added.

But Latina teens are not the only ones with these problems, according to Michelle McCarthy, director of crisis services of the Suicide Prevention Service of the Central Coast, “Anyone is susceptible to suicide regardless of their age, gender, or socioeconomic background,” she said.

According to Dr. Camarillo, although all races are susceptible to depression and suicidal thoughts, Latino youth have lesser resources when compared to other races.

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that Latina females aged 12 to 17 were at higher risk for suicide than other youths. Only 32 percent of Latina female youths at risk for suicide during the past year received mental health treatment during this same time period.

“The best ways to solving something like this is letting people know about the resources that are out there,” McCarthy said. “Sometimes this means going to more than one person because sometimes people are helpful and sometimes people aren’t as helpful.”

Latino youths will commonly grow up in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. That is the entrance gate to so many of the statistics that they are affiliated with today, like high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, and single parent households.

“This puts them at risk for poor self esteem and a lack of emotional well being,” Camarillo explained of Latino youth in these types of situations. “They become depressed and self destructive. Eventually they become suicidal.”

But because of their migrant background and family influence, Latinos face a major disadvantage: lack of resources.

“They see that they aren’t living up to their potential and don’t want to bring more awareness to that,” Camarillo said. “We, as counselors, can’t impose our services. A person has to want help in order for us to help them.”

Ayuda’s story is of a Latina youth who wants to be helped. She will graduate her 12-week Early Recovery Program next week. Although her relationship with her parents is still limited, she is trying and relying on other family members like cousins and aunts for the majority of her support.

“It’s always the closer family members that are in denial,” Ayuda has learned through her program. “That’s what we are taught at the family group meetings: to stop making excuses for ourselves and each other and just face reality.”

“Research has shown that medication and therapy have the best outcomes when it comes to major depression,” Dr. Camarillo said, “It can be treated.”

Ayuda has come a long way since her accident. This is not the case for all. If you or a loved one is showing signs of depression or suicide, do not hesitate. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-877-ONE-LIFE (1-877-663-5433). For a local number, call the Santa Cruz Suicide Prevention Service at (831) 458- 5300 or 1-800- SUICIDA (784-2432) for Spanish-language assistance.

* Names have been changed to protect their actual identities