NEW YORK CITY — This time of year I find myself recalling the tragedy of a friend, a charming Cuban girl who took her own life in Miami in October 1981, a victim of depression. She was 22, and I do not publish her name out of respect for the pained privacy of her family and friends.
Today, 33 years later, her death assaults my memory once again and leads me to meditate on the irony that the fear of an epidemic that’s nonexistent in this country provokes collective hysteria, piles up apocalyptic headlines and has become a political weapon for the Republicans, who, demagogically, demand a disproportionate response to it, while another epidemic called youth suicide (lamentably true) deserves nothing more than an occasional reference in the media and a passing nod from Republicans and Democrats.
Don’t misunderstand me: the danger of an ebola epidemic worldwide is real and growing and, as experts have pointed out, might not be halted without a global response. As we know, Cuba is on the front line of this battle to save lives, sending hundreds of its doctors to the worst affected African countries.
In contrast, the United States, the world’s most powerful country, has sent soldiers instead of doctors and has announced that they’re not there to treat the sick. Their usefulness in the fight against the epidemic is, at the least, questionable.
What is not questionable is the panic created by ebola in the U.S., although the reality is that it makes no sense. As a fellow journalist has said, putting the situation in perspective, “Jennifer López has married more people (three) than have died of ebola in this country (one).”
Things are different with youth suicide, a tragedy that becomes even worse because, during a stage of their lives that should be the happiest, more and more young people in the U.S., especially teenage Latinas, attempt to die at their own hands.
Statistics tell a moving story of desperation and impotence. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 15.6 percent of young Latinas in the U.S. tried to commit suicide one or more times. For reasons that are very complex, more teenage Latinas than girls from other ethnic groups — many more — try to take their own lives, almost twice the number of young white American women.
In New York City, the number of young Latinas who try to kill themselves is more than twice the number of white American girls (13.3 percent vs. 5.9 percent) and continues to rise.
“It is a huge tragedy in our community,” says Dr. Rosa María Gil, creator of Life Is Precious, a suicide-prevention program for young Latinas in New York. “The statistics have never been more worrisome and the need to act has never been more imperative.”
The reasons for the spread of the epidemic are complex, says Gil.
“One of them is culture shock. Acculturation is a recurring factor. The mothers come from other countries but many of the girls were born or grew up here,” the expert says. “Other factors, like poverty, unemployment, bullying in schools, domestic violence and inadequate housing, can aggravate depression and stress in young women.”
Sexual violence is another factor of this tragic equation. Of the 150 girls who have gone through Life Is Precious, 35 percent have been victims of sexual abuse, which, according to Gil, places them at a high risk of suicide.
There are no easy solutions, but we all must be alert and talk with our girls — our daughters, our sisters, our granddaughters — to assure them that they’re not alone and to lift the cloak of silence that conceals their hopelessness.
We should end with the stigma of mental illness in our communities, expose the problem and urge young women to seek help. We should support initiatives like Dr. Gil’s in New York and others elsewhere so they may carry out their life-saving task.
The epidemic of suicide among teenage Hispanic girls is real, yes, and we must do something to stop it.
For myself, I hope I’ll never again feel what I felt 33 ago, when I wrote these lines, attempting nothing more than to express my sadness over the death of that charming Cuban girl:
Sadness and cobwebs
dwell within my breast;
there’s a void and the frustration
of having to ask:
Did death come again?
Death forever lurks!