Adolescent Development and Acculturation of Latina Suicide Attempters

Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2013

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Social Work

Additional Affiliations

Brown School of Social Work

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Each year, approximately 15% of Latina adolescents in the United States attempt suicide (Center for Disease Control [CDC], 2012). Rates of suicide attempts among Latina adolescents have been historically higher than those of their non-Latina counterparts (CDC, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2003). Familial, cultural and developmental issues have been cited as critical aspects to understand Latina adolescents' suicidal behavior (Zayas, Lester, Cabassa, & Fortuna, 2005).

Prior research explaining the high incidence of suicide attempts among Latina teens has focused primarily on familial processes and parent-daughter conflicts (Gulbas, Nolle, Hausmann-Stabile, Kuhlberg, Peña ... Baumann, 2011; Peña, Kuhlberg, Zayas, Bauman, Gulbas ... Nolle, 2011; Zayas, Gulbas, Fedoravicius, & Cabassa, 2010; Zayas, Hausmann-Stabile & Kuhlberg, 2011), and on Latino cultural values that shape the girls' suicidal behavior (Nolle, Gulbas, Kuhlberg, & Zayas, 2012; Zayas & Gulbas, 2012). Although this literature has increased the understanding of this phenomenon, it has not differentiated Latina adolescent suicide attempters from non-attempters. Thus, the question of why so many Latina teens attempt suicide remains unanswered.

Acculturation and development have been suggested to be at the core of the adaptation problems of Latina adolescents (Cervantes & Cordova, 2011), and acculturation is a hypothesized precursor of some of their behavioral and mental health problems (De la Rosa, 2002; Gonzales, Knight, Morgan-Lopez, Saenz, & Sirolli, 2002; Rogler, Cortes, & Malgady, 1991). Even though adolescent development and acculturation are hypothesized to be related to the suicide attempts of Latina adolescents (Zayas et al., 2005), the process by which these factors impact suicidal behavior has not been empirically explored. This research project is focused on understanding the role played by adolescent development and acculturation in Latina teens' suicide attempts, illustrating this process and their integration, and the role they play in the girls' suicidal behavior.

The conceptual model informing this project is anchored in minority youth development theories suggesting that in addition to the normative developmental challenges that all adolescents face, children of immigrant backgrounds must acculturate to the host society (Phinney, 1990; Smolowski & Bacallao, 2011). This has led researchers (Sam, 2006; Sam & Oppendal, 2003) to theorize that children of immigrant backgrounds' development and acculturation in fact constitute parts of one interdependent process and should be studied simultaneously.

Ideally, the study of Latina adolescent suicide attempters' developmental and cultural processes calls for longitudinal research. However, longitudinal studies with suicidal participants are challenging due to the difficulties in engaging and retaining this population (Gibbons, Stirman, Brown, & Beck, 2010). This dissertation attempts a novel solution to this problem by applying an innovative approach used previously in quantitative surveys that compares the personal narratives of teens with and without a history of suicide attempts over time using cross-sectional data. Participants are grouped by age in statistically matched cohorts (early adolescence, middle adolescence, late adolescence), presumably allowing for the analyses of the process of change over time across cohorts. To date, this is the first known attempt to apply this approach to qualitative data.

This dissertation is an exploratory secondary analysis of 55 in-depth interviews of adolescent Latinas between the ages of 11 and 19 who attempted suicide compared to 49 interviews of Latina adolescents without a history of suicide attempts. Data for this dissertation were collected between 2005 and 2009 via a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health R01 MH070689 (Zayas, PI). This secondary analysis goes beyond the original grant's aims by shifting the analytic focus from interpersonal dynamics to intrapersonal developmental and acculturation processes, and their relationship to the girls' suicide attempts.

By increasing our understanding of the role played by adolescent developmental and acculturative factors on Latinas' suicidal behavior, this dissertation responds to calls by the United Nations (1996), the World Health Organization (2012), the Surgeon General (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2012), and by the Healthy People 2020 program (DHHS, 2010) to develop research that can help reduce suicide attempts. In addition, it responds to the calls from scientists who ask for theoretical models that integrate the developmental and acculturation changes that children of immigrant backgrounds undergo during adolescence (Garcia Coll & Magnuson, 1997; Laosa, 1997; Sam, 2006; Sam & Oppedal, 2003).


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Melissa Jonson-Reid

Committee Members

Carolyn Lesorogol, Anne Glowinski, Lauren Gulbas, David Gilespi, Vetta Thompson


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K7TB14WT

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