Risk Factors Associated with Completed Suicide in Latino Adolescents

Article excerpt

Since 1960 the adolescent suicide rate has more than tripled, making suicide now the second leading cause of death among teenagers, after automobile accidents. Specifically, between 1960 and 1988, the suicide rate for teenagers 15 to 19 years of age increased from 3.6 to 11.3 per 100,000, and for those aged 10 to 14, it increased from 0.5 to 1.4 per 100,000. In comparison, suicide rates for the total population have increased slightly, from 10.6 per 100,000 in 1960 to 12.4 in 1988 (National Center for Health Statistics, 1963, 1991; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1991).

Despite the growing adolescent suicide problem, there have been surprisingly few recent, controlled studies of the characteristics of adolescents who committed suicide, and there has been no published research on the characteristics of Latino adolescent suicide victims, even though there is some evidence that Latino adolescents may have a higher rate of suicide than non-Latin white adolescents (Smith, Mercer, & Rosenberg, 1989).

This article presents the findings of an exploratory, controlled study of suicide among Latino adolescents in Dade County (the Greater Miami metropolitan area hereinafter referred to as "Miami"). The main purpose was to identify potential psychosocial risk factors associated with completed suicide among Latino teenagers to be considered in future research and in suicide prevention efforts. Its findings are of importance to educators and human services professionals working with Latino youths. They can considerably improve their ability to identify youngsters at risk for suicide by becoming acquainted with the psychosocial characteristics of the victims in this study.

For the purposes of the present study, Latino adolescent suicide victims were defined as individuals between the ages of 13 and 19 with a Spanish surname and born in a Spanish-speaking country, Puerto Rico, or the continental U.S. who took their own lives in circumstances ruled to be nonaccidental by the medical examiner.

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

A review of the literature revealed no published research on the characteristics of Latino adolescent suicide victims.(1) Irrespective of ethnic background, there have been surprisingly few recent, controlled studies of the characteristics of adolescents who committed suicide (Shafii, Carrigan, Whittinghill, & Derrick, 1985; Shaffer & Gould, 1987; Brent et al., 1988; Kuperman, Black, & Burns 1988; Nelson, Farberow, & Litman, 1988; Shafii, Steltz-Lenarsky, Derrick, Beckner, & Whittinghill, 1988). Most likely, the very limited research on such an important issue is due to the difficulties inherent in assembling a large enough sample of victims in one geographic area. Other studies of adolescent suicide victims did not include a control group (Shaffer, 1974; Pettifor, Perry, Plowman, & Pitcher, 1983; Brent, Perper, & Allman, 1987; Poteet, 1987; Thompson, 1987; Hoberman & Garfinkel, 1988; Rich, Sherman, & Fowler, 1990). Consequently, the significance of their findings cannot be determined.(2) Still other studies of adolescent suicide reviewed were based on deaths that occurred ten or more years ago or in countries other than the U.S.; their results might not accurately represent the characteristics of youngsters who have recently committed suicide in the U.S. (e.g., Shaffer, 1974; Pettifor et al., 1983; Thompson, 1987). In short, knowledge about the psychosocial characteristics of adolescent suicide victims is still quite limited.

Children under the age of 12 very rarely commit suicide; however, suicides become increasingly more common every year after puberty. Still, nationally, less than 12% of the adolescents who kill themselves are as young or younger than 14 (National Center for Health Statistics, 1989, 1990). Among adolescent victims, there are four males for every female (National Center for Health Statistics, 1989, 1990). One possible reason why males commit suicide more frequently is that they have greater access to and familiarity with firearms (the most lethal method that can be used). …