Latina Teenagers Fight for their Lives


Ymalay Rodríguez, with her mother, Blanca Nieves, at their Bronx home. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Ymalay Rodríguez dreams of singing at Madison Square Garden.

Until recently, however, instead of having ambitions for her future, the 16-year-old was intent on thwarting it through several attempts to end her own life.

The Bronx resident of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent belongs to a sector of the population that keeps the authorities on high alert: 18.5 percent of all Latina high school students in New York “seriously considered attempting suicide.”

Of those, 13.2 percent have already attempted to take their own lives, almost twice as many as their white counterparts, said statistics for 2015 published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The two-year period between 2013 and 2015 saw the “largest increase of Latina teens who seriously considered suicide,” said Rosa Gil, founder of the Comunilife nonprofit organization. “

A surge of 34 percent was registered in the Bronx, from 13.7 in 2013 to 18.3 in 2015,” said Gil. The borough is not the exception, as 19 to 20 percent of all Latinas between the ages of 12 and 18 living in Staten Island, Queens and Manhattan are at risk of taking their lives. Brooklyn is the only borough where the numbers decreased in those two years, from 23.5 percent to 15.1 percent.

Gil has been studying the nationwide rise of these suicidal tendencies since 2008. To address this issue, she developed the Life Is Precious (LIP) program, a Comunilife initiative that provides young women such as Rodríguez and 90 others from the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens with the tools they need to move ahead.

Rodríguez discovered how thin the line between life and death is when, at just 11 years old, she began to believe that she was bipolar. Events such as her mother’s illness, hanging out with the wrong crowd and temporarily losing her eyesight triggered her fears. “As my therapist used to say, I didn’t feel anything, and that’s why I started cutting, so I could feel something,” said the young woman.

When she could not find the help she needed at a psychiatric center, Rodríguez was referred to LIP in the Bronx. “The center is my home outside my home,” said the student, who wants to become a music therapist. She added: “Because we are all in school, the center’s staff helps us do our homework.”

The program provides teenagers with art and music activities, as well as access to computers and books. Rodríguez is now learning to play piano and guitar with LIP instructors.

She explained that LIP provides them with company and positive options they may lack at home to make the most of their spare time.

Gil said that creative activities such as painting, poetry and music have been crucial in helping the teens express how they feel. The program also offers cooking lessons, nutrition counseling – as many of the participants are overweight – and physical exercise. “Because, if they are happy with the way they look, they feel better,” said Gil.

“I found a family in the program, because now my mom now has ‘goddaughters’ [Rodríguez’s fellow LIP participants] who are like my sisters,” she said.

Rodríguez’s mother, Blanca Nieves, feels that LIP has also benefited her. “My fellow ‘godmothers’ and my therapist have helped me a lot with my girl; to tolerate her better and to control my anger, because I used to have a very short temper,” she said.

Nieves feels that the program has helped her daughter.

“The migration factor creates conflicts within the family. The lack of acceptance in the community where [immigrants] settle and in school, the stress of migrating and adolescence itself create serious problems,” said Gil, who is fundraising to open a Manhattan center this year.

Since 2008, 250 Latina teens have embraced life thanks to their participation in the LIP program. “This type of group awareness is very healthy, because they are no longer embarrassed to have those thoughts when they learn that other girls are also going through a tough time in their lives,” said the expert.

The progress made by the girls goes hand in hand with that of their parents’. “We work with them so that they are able to understand the dilemmas faced by adolescents and the differences between them and their children due to the change of culture,” said Gil.

LIP’s work has been closely monitored by Columbia University for the last three years. They have found that a teen’s suicidal tendencies begin to subside within the first month of her joining the program.

Help via text message

Since January, the NYC Teen SMS Text Crisis Counseling hotline has provided teens at risk with immediate assistance available 24 hours a day.

The service, provided by the nonprofit Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA-NYC) receives at least 29 messages from teens between 14 and 18 years of age seeking help every day.

To contact a crisis counselor, users only need to text the number 65173.

“We know that text messages are the preferred way of communication of teenagers,” said Lynn Kaplan, MHA-NYC LifeNet’s project director, of which NYC Teen is a part. The text messaging service “reduces the barriers for them to seek help because they can write from wherever they are and no one needs to know what they are doing. They do not need to wait for an appointment.” Kaplan added that texts also make it easier for teens to talk about personal issues, as it is not fact-to-face communication.

At the moment, the NYC Teen counseling service is only available in English, but Spanish services will start in October. A 24/7 peer hotline and more follow-up services to assist individuals who call or text the hotlines are also in the works.

“One of the things that have really helped us to improve the text system was to incorporate youth counselors into our centers,” said Kaplan. The professionals have been trained to respond to the messages and to make sure that they successfully create a connection to discourage the person reaching out from cutting off the communication.

The project director added that, if the caller is reluctant to talk, the counselor listens to their life story to generate empathy, provide validation and make the person feel that their feelings are normal. “It is beautiful when that happens,” said Kaplan.

The MHA-NYC has also created Adolescent Skills Centers (ASC) in the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan, where they help youths with emotional and behavioral issues to advance in their studies and develop abilities for the future.

The organization has also pioneered services in Spanish (the Ayúdese – “Help Yourself” – hotline at 1-877-2983373, created in 1997) and in Asian languages. Also, offers information in Spanish about available services for people in crisis, as well as advice on how to preserve mental health.

Please see Voices of NY

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