Nearly half of all Latina high school girls report they are persistently sad or hopeless to the point of being unable to carry out usual life activities. One in five has considered suicide. One in 10 attempted suicide in 2017 alone. For lesbian, bisexual and queer Latina girls, the reality is even worse: More than two in three were persistently sad or hopeless, nearly half considered suicide and nearly two in five attempted suicide in 2017.
Those 2017 statistics were released by the Centers for Disease Control in the summer of 2018. That was the summer that family separation escalated. I remember following the news closely, reading the stories of primarily Latinx children as young as a few months old separated from their parents at the border, hearing the recorded cries of those children in cages.
But what makes this worse is that Latina girls in particular had already been reporting concerning mental health outcomes for decades, long before this presidency, and we haven’t paid attention.
Since I live with major depressive disorder and other mental health conditions, that summer was especially difficult. Those kids at the border looked like my siblings. The parents looked like my parents. And I felt powerless in the face of my family (because I did see them as my family) being treated as less than human.
Attacks on Latinx immigrants, escalated by the Trump administration, have been affecting the physical and mental health of the entire Latinx community. A recent study shows that undocumented Latina women experience post-traumatic stress disorder at four times the national rate. But what makes this worse is that Latina girls in particular had already been reporting concerning mental health outcomes for decades, long before this presidency, and we haven’t paid attention. When we talk about mental health, too often we ignore Latinx and other communities of color, even when they are especially impacted. Latina girls already needed mental health support, and we collectively responded by deepening their trauma.
After last summer, I had enough of feeling powerless. I worked with 12 middle and high school Latina and one nonbinary Latinx student from my community to advocate for student mental health needs. These student leaders identified the challenges they face in their schools who don’t know how to – or choose not to – support them. They described feeling that their mental health concerns are masked by stereotypes of Latinas as “crazy” or “dramatic” or “moody.” And too many of them felt that in their schools, rather than being supported in difficult times, they were blamed, shamed, stigmatized and silenced.
Together, we wrote a National Women’s Law Center report filled with recommendations on making schools supportive, mental health-conscious places. The student co-authors spoke of the need to change the entire school culture around mental health, to see themselves in school curriculum, and to know their rights to accommodations and safe learning environments. They know that their schools can be safe and supportive spaces where they can belong, especially in a time where politicians are sending the opposite message.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, but suicide intervention alone will never be enough. While we must have education, training and support around suicide intervention, to focus only on that is to ignore the entire internal and external context around what brings a person to the moment of suicide attempt. This summer, 13-year-old Heydi Gámez García died by suicide after being separated from her father. Many other Latina girls attempt suicide and live, only to experience a lack of visibility and support that makes it much harder to build the lives they want and deserve.
Education is the root of culture change, and we can begin to make that change by following our students’ recommendations.
Critical mental health awareness means, as professor and mental health advocate Chantal Figueroa states, “We cannot ignore our current political climate when we talk about mental health.” It means that we must take on the larger work of building a world where Latina girls feel safe and supported, living without fear or shame, where they know their rights and their power, and where their mental health is valued.
Education is the root of culture change, and we can begin to make that change by following our students’ recommendations. In a time where students are coming to school scared, sad and unheard, schools must be spaces responsive to their mental health needs far before the need for suicide intervention.