By Erika Perez-Tobon, Published in Anton Media Newspapers
One of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center’s signature programs is the Latina Girls Project, which was created in response to the alarming rates of depression, school refusal, self-harm, suicidal ideation and attempted suicides by Hispanic teen girls.
More than a decade ago, our team at the Guidance Center noticed an increasingly large number of first-generation Latinas were coming to us with severe depression, self-harming behaviors and suicidal thoughts. Many had stopped attending school, and some had been hospitalized for suicide attempts.
The research backed up what we were seeing at the time: Hispanic teenage girls were significantly more likely than their non-Hispanic peers to suffer from depression, thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts. More recent research, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that 10.5% of Latina adolescents aged 10–24 years in the U.S. attempted suicide in 2016, compared to 7.3% of white female, 5.8% of Latino and 4.6% white male teens.
In response to this crisis, we formed the Latina Girls Project, an innovative program that employs individual, group and family therapy, along with monthly outings and other activities, all designed to tackle issues such as depression, low self-esteem, social anxiety, school refusal, self-harming behaviors or suicidal ideation.
Some of our clients who were born outside the U.S. have witnessed violence in their homelands, and many have experienced complex trauma since a young age. Those who were born in the U.S. are impacted by the generational trauma experienced by their parents and limitations around communicating with their parents.
Regardless of where they were born, a big part of the reason these girls are struggling is because they are pulled in conflicting directions, with their parents wanting them to adhere to the traditional values of their homeland, while the girls seek to integrate into American culture and find acceptance among their peers.
The result: Parents are often extremely overprotective; they won’t allow their daughters to venture out and participate in activities such as sleepovers, dating or trips to the mall. Even if the teens are allowed to go out with their friends, they are required to have a chaperone, such as a parent or brother. In addition, they are often relegated to gender-biased roles, required to cook, clean and take care of their siblings while their brothers are treated, as one girl said, “like princes.”
During bilingual individual, family and group therapy sessions, the girls realize that they can trust their therapists, many of whom also grew up as first-generation Latinas. The therapists teach the girls healthy strategies to deal with stress and depression and effective ways to communicate with their parents.
For their part, the parents become more compassionate about their daughters’ desire to fit in, and they also understand the need to let their teens separate in age-appropriate ways. One of our Latina clients put it this way: “My parents learned that I just wanted them to be there for me and listen. They learned that it doesn’t help to question why I feel the way I do but to accept it and support me.”
In addition to therapy, the program incorporates monthly supervised outings to places such as theaters, museums and other cultural and educational sites. These trips, made possible by the generosity of John and Janet Kornreich, expose the girls to the world in a way that would never have happened if not for this Guidance Center program. The trips serve to boost the teens’ confidence and sense of independence, and the girls also discover that there’s a great big world of opportunity out there for them, which allows them to feel hopeful about their futures. The trips also offer respite to the parents who are relieved to know that their daughters are in safe hands.
As one girl put it, “The Latina Girls Project helped my mother and I communicate and become very close, and the monthly outings showed me a world I never would have seen. I felt that I wanted to be a part of the larger world. The trips gave me the feeling that I could be truly happy in my life.”
Bio: Erika Perez-Tobon, LCSW, who is originally from Venezuela, is the bilingual Clinical Supervisor of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center’s Latina Girls Project, which is located at the agency’s Westbury location.