Suicide Attempts among Adolescent Mexican American Students Enrolled in Special Education Classes

By Medina, Catherine; Luna, Gaye | Adolescence, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Suicide Attempts among Adolescent Mexican American Students Enrolled in Special Education Classes


Medina, Catherine, Luna, Gaye, Adolescence


The number of suicides in the United States exceeds the number of homicides. In the year 2000, 16,765 homicides and 29,350 suicides were reported (as cited in Price, Thompson, & Drake, 2004). A successful suicide rate for adolescents between 15 and 24 years of age has increased nearly 300% in the last three decades (Rich, Kirkpatrick-Smith, Bonner, & Jans, 1992). It is estimated that 12 people each day between the ages of 15 and 24 successfully commit suicide (American Association of Suicidology, 2004). Bearman and Moody (2004) reported that 4% of American adolescents considered suicide at least once in the past year, and 20% of adolescents indicated they knew someone who had attempted suicide in the past year. Twenty to 100 suicides are attempted for every completion (Metha, Weber, & Webb, 1998). Although research can approximate the number of suicides and attempted suicides each year, it is impossible to know with certainty how many there are among school-aged youth. Research notes that adolescent suicides are underreported, with attempts significantly outnumbering reported attempts four to one (see, e.g., Davis, 1985; Poland, 1989). This may be due to families who feel stigmatized by their tragedies disguising the deaths as being caused by automobile accidents or drug overdoses. Given these findings, it can be reasonably concluded that reported estimates are probably conservative.

The investigation of suicide among Mexican American youth in special education for emotional and behavioral disorders is a relatively new field of study. In one of the few studies that did investigate youth suicide among Hispanics, Loya (1976) found that it increased at a higher rate for Hispanics than for non-Hispanics in Colorado during the period of 1960-1975. Garland and Zigler (1993) reported that suicides for nonwhites have more than doubled over the past 28 years. Most studies on suicide do not recognize Mexican Americans adolescents in special education as a separate risk group. Guetzloe (1991) contends that special education populations are often among the victims of suicide due to behavioral characteristics associated with their exceptionalities.

In view of the increasing frequency of suicide and other self-destructive behaviors among Mexican American youth and special education students, it is urgent for school personnel to uncover the factors related to suicide. Substance abuse, social conflict, and depression are significant predictors of suicidal ideation among adolescents (Shaughnessy, Dosi, Jones, & Everett, 2004). There is a strong association between depressive symptoms, drug use, and suicidal ideation among Mexican American teenagers living in U.S./Mexico border communities in Texas (Swanson, Linskey, Quintero-Salinas, Pumariega, & Holzer, 1992). Recognizing Mexican American youth who are in special education classes as a separate risk group, the present study (a) identifies the factors that contribute to suicide, (b) reviews the signs and characteristics associated with these factors, (c) interviews Mexican American students in special education programs for emotional and behavioral disorders who exhibited various characteristics of suicidal thoughts and/or have attempted suicide, (d) explores effective prevention programs, and (e) provides suggestions for school personnel.

METHOD

Eight adolescent students, ages 13 to 18 with emotional/behavioral disabilities and placed in special education programs, were asked to participate in the study. It was only determined through interviews that four of the eight adolescents had attempted suicide. Another adolescent had several interactions with friends who had committed suicide and had also contemplated suicide himself.

All interview data gathered utilized Seidman's (1991) phenomenological in-depth interviewing procedures which followed a three-question framework addressing factors often associated with suicidal youth.

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