By Saúl Soto
Boyle Heights Beat
A Boyle Heights teenager spent seven days in a mental facility last year after concerned friends told school counselors that Brandon, who was then 15, had been contemplating suicide.
Recounting the story now, the 16-year-old junior at Bravo Medical Magnet High School says at first he was at first surprised that his friends took his threat seriously. Today the teen, who is named Brandon, says he still struggles with depression and anxiety in his day-to-day life (Boyle Heights Beat is only identifying the student by his first name because of the sensitivity of the topic).
He says his anxiety issues started two years before being admitted to the mental facility due to the stress of school and problems there.
Brandon’s struggle is not unusual in adolescents. In 2015, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that an estimated 3 million 12-17-year-olds in the United States 12 to had at least one major depressive episode in the previous year.
A new Los Angeles Unified School District report shows incidents of suicidal behavior are on the rise, both for middle and high school students. For the first time in six years of reporting, incidents among middle school students surpassed those among high school students.
For some Hispanic students in Boyle Heights, factors such as low family income, language barriers, lack of awareness of available resources and stigma can hinder them from getting the mental help they need, experts say.
Increase in suicidal behavior
Last year, there were 5,624 incidents of suicidal behavior reported to LAUSD, with the majority coming from middle school students. This is up from 255 reports of suicidal behavior in 2010, when LAUSD started its Incident System Tracking Accountability Report (iSTAR). Among the symptoms of suicidal behavior are talking about a desire to kill oneself, experiencing anxiety of extreme mood swings or increasing the use of drugs, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Lorena Valencia, a social worker who is LAUSD’s Eastside coordinator, attributes the increase to better reporting because of increased awareness among students and adults. “It’s not a new phenomenon,” she says. “We have more assessments because we’re asking the right questions.”
Diego Rodrigues, director of youth and family services at Alma Family Services, believes there could be “a higher incidence of depression or anxiety disorders” in low-income communities like Boyle Heights “because of lack of resources within our community [and] lack of information and access to care and prevention services.”
Some Hispanics do not get the help they need. When comparing rates of treatment, only 36 percent of Hispanics received care for depression, versus 60 percent of whites, according to the American Psychological Association.
Experts say this can be for a variety of reasons. “Poverty-related issues, barriers to access services–all these things can really contribute to the attitude and idea of how one approaches their own care,” says Geny Zapata, director of behavioral sciences at White Memorial Medical Center Family Medicine Residency Program.
Brandon says that while his parents are glad that he is getting help, they don’t completely understand his issues. In the past, he says, his parents had told him to “just try and fix yourself.”
“You can’t do that with what I struggle with,” says Brandon. “Sometime I feel trapped by my depression, or I feel a numbness, and I’m scared I’m going to completely let that be a normal thing. Because I know it shouldn’t be normal.”
Rodrigues says that anxiety and depression, hopelessness about the future and lack of support are among the causes of suicide attempts by youth.
According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among Hispanic students in grades 9-12, nearly 19 percent had seriously considered attempting suicide, and almost 16 percent had made a plan. About 11 percent actually attempted suicide, and about 4 percent made a suicide attempt that required medical attention. Very few actually died. All of the rates for Hispanic youth were consistently higher than white and black students, though whites of all ages have the highest rate of death from suicide.
“It may be that for our community it is sometimes harder for us to talk about our mental health problems, especially for young Latinas to open up about their mental health problems, maybe with their parents,” says Rodrigues.
Latina adolescents have the highest rate of suicide attempts among female teenagers nationwide, with 15.1 percent of Latina adolescents in the United States reporting that they attempted suicide one or more times in 2015, and 26 percent considered it, according to the CDC.
Valencia, LAUSD’s Eastside coordinator, says that while mental illness is a complex issue, preventing suicidal behavior is really about connecting with kids. “The number one way to prevent suicide is to create a culture where kids will talk to you, and kids feel connected,” she says. “If a child feels connected to at least one adult, that’s going to help their overall academic experience and overall their wellbeing.”
Several centers in Boyle Heights offer help to teens and adults struggling with their mental health, including Alma Family Services, White Memorial Hospital and ENKI Health & Research Systems.
Some providers have integrated themselves into the communities they serve improve the rates of seeking help, such as Integrated School Help Center (ISHC). The ISHC is located on-campus at Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School and is open to all students. Help is available for families at the Wellness Center at The Historic General Hospital in Boyle Heights.
Experts agree that mental health needs to be seen in the same light as physical health. “If we think of mental illness the same way we think of diabetes, we say we have to get help for it,” Valencia says.
Brandon currently sees a therapist at ENKI and is on medication for depression and anxiety. He knows that seeking help has put him on the road to recovery.
“You have to take baby steps,” he says. “You have to learn new ways to basically help yourself even when your therapist isn’t around.”
Illustration above by Stephanie B. Varela